Story of the Year No. 6: N.H. deals with accusations of voter fraud

  • Though turnout wasn't high at most polling places, Loudon - which had a contested selectman's race - saw 521 of 4244 registerd voters by about 3 p.m. Tuesday. The average number is about 700 for a town meeting day election there. Elodie Reed

Monitor staff
Published: 12/27/2017 10:42:45 PM

Few would contest it’s been a wild year for voting reform. Amid bills and lawsuits, commissions and protest rallies, rarely has the sanctity of the New Hampshire voting booth seen as much scrutiny.

Perhaps it was inevitable. Soon after a combative national election produced several razor-thin victories in the Granite State, charges of voter fraud quickly mounted. Between the political parties, fierce disagreements re-emerged around whether and how to revise the state’s voting laws. Momentum for reform began to pick up.

It’s not that similar attempts haven’t been made before. But the intensity of the debates this year – accompanied by a fleet of Republican-led bills intended to tighten oversight at the polls – was noteworthy. Now, with a major piece of voting legislation tied up in the courts, and another contentious bill for next session waiting in the wings, 2017 closes out no closer to bipartisan harmony than 2016 did.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s participation in a presidential commission to examine voting integrity has set off further partisan reactions, in favor and against.

With just days before the next round of battle, here are the major points that brought us here.

It starts with Senate Bill 3. Considered alongside a patchwork of voting bills last session, the bill closed what for Republicans has been a long-eyed loophole: the potential for people to claim they are domiciled in the state for voting purposes after spending just one night in the state. SB 3 introduced more stringent documentation requirements for those registering within 30 days of election days – as well as financial penalties if they fail to meet those requirements.

It was the penalties that set off the court challenges. Facing dual claims from the N.H. Democratic Party and League of Women voters that the threat of penalty would unlawfully suppress the vote, a Hillsborough Superior Court judge put a stay on the punitive parts of the law for all elections until the case can be heard.

A preliminary decision is set for August 2018 – just weeks ahead of the state primary.

Of course, the post-election skepticism wasn’t confined to Concord, and events in Washington soon intervened. Shortly before his inauguration, President Trump claimed, without evidence, that 3 million to 5 million people in the U.S. had voted illegally in the 2016 election. Soon, a bipartisan commission was established to explore the claim and analyze voter confidence in state voting systems. New Hampshire’s Bill Gardner, the longest-serving secretary of state in the country and a Democrat, quickly jumped on board.

The decision drew a quick rebuke from New Hampshire Democrats, who argue the commission has a predetermined goal to justify Trump’s claims. Gardner, for his part, says he believes the Granite State’s voting system is trustworthy – he joined the commission in part to make that case and explore other states’ situations, he said.

The position was at times awkward: One day Gardner was collating emails in response to right-to-know requests on his use of state resources toward the commission; the next he was challenging Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach over false statements Kobach had made about voter fraud in New Hampshire.

But much of the controversy centered on a key of the commission’s mission: requesting voter data from states in order to search for evidence of fraud. Gardner supported the move, calling it a risk-free opportunity to add to the national understanding. After initially facing a lawsuit by the New Hampshire American Civil Liberties Union and two lawmakers, Gardner found a way to do it while avoiding thorny privacy concerns.

Some called it a welcome move to restore national voting confidence using publicly available data, others a breach of privacy with a dubious goal. Either way, progress has stalled – facing national lawsuits, the commission has gone dark and is unlikely to accept New Hampshire’s voter checklist information anytime soon.

By December, with a national commission out of operation and signature bill on hold, voting law reform seemed to have quieted. Then came House Bill 372. The bill, which slipped through last session in SB 3’s wake, makes a simple change to the definition of “resident,” bringing it in line with the definition of “domicile.”

Democrats and the ACLU quickly declared that it would require residency to vote, which would in turn require those voting to obtain New Hampshire licenses to drive, and would in turn function as a de facto “poll tax.” Republicans have been more split; some say it does require residency to vote, and support it, while others dismiss that interpretation as a wishful over-reading. All Republicans, however, dismiss the “poll tax” charges.

HB 372, hurtling to the Senate floor next, has yet to be tested; officials with the Department of Justice and Division of Motor Vehicles have declined to comment on how they believe it would be interpreted if passed.

But if past is prologue, all sides agree, interpreting the bill once and for all will likely be a job for the courts. 2018 could be as busy a year for New Hampshire voting reform as ever.

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