Warren campaign raises concerns about N.H. voting law confusion 

  • Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at a campaign event, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Hanover, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

Monitor staff
Published: 10/24/2019 6:17:34 PM

For backers of New Hampshire’s new voter residency law, House Bill 1264, the aims were simple: make voting in the Granite State an act of declaring one’s residency – rather than declaring a temporary home.

But at least one presidential campaign is arguing that the function of the law is far from clear. And with the primary just under four months away, explaining the new law to voters is sowing confusion on the campaign trail.

In an affidavit submitted Monday to the U.S. District Court in Concord, Liz Wester, the state director for Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaign, said the staffers in the campaign are struggling to interpret the new law, and are not receiving clarity from state officials.

“The lack of clarity from the Secretary of State’s office has left a lot of confusion in college campuses across the state,” Wester wrote.

The affidavit, submitted by Wester in the case of Casey v. Gardner, stated that the uncertainty around the law has forced the Warren campaign to change up the way it interacts with voters on the trail, so as not to lead to misunderstandings.

“Without guidance from the state, we are left in the position of being unable to answer voters, especially students, questions,” Wester added.

Casey v. Garder, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, is seeking to overturn the new law on the basis that it imposes unfair requirements on New Hampshire college students originally from out of state. Those requirements, the ACLU argues, could suppress the votes of those students and others.

The law, House Bill 1264, eliminates a long-standing distinction of the “domiciled voter” in election law. Previously, a student who considered New Hampshire their home more than their home state could vote in the Granite State and be counted as domiciled but not a full resident. Under the new change, that distinction is effectively gone, and someone who votes in a New Hampshire election is considered a resident.

That means college voters could be required to obtain a Granite State driver’s license and register their car in the state, new conditions that the ACLU argues amounts to a “poll tax.” Republicans say the law is only meant to eliminate an unfair exemption to the responsibilities of residency and put all voters on the same plane.

In its latest filing this week, the ACLU made the argument that a lack of clear communication from the state agencies that would be responsible for carrying out the new law – such as the Secretary of State’s office and the Division of Motor Vehicles – meant more clarity is needed on what the law specifically does.

The Department of Justice, defending the law, has countered that the effects of the new law are clear: registering to vote means accepting the responsibility of being a resident and following motor vehicle law in the state.

But responding to questions from reporters and stakeholders on how that would be carried out, representatives for those offices have been reticent to fully explain the law, often directing queries to each other.

In its own filing Monday, the ACLU said the law should be put on hold through the presidential primary to allow the state Supreme Court to parse the meaning of the law. Wester’s affidavit Monday was designed to bolster the case for more information.

For the Warren campaign, the law has proven tricky for its on-the-ground operations, according to the affidavit. As campaign staff and volunteers have fanned across college campuses to persuade voters to register and ultimately choose Elizabeth Warren, the ongoing lawsuit and persisting questions are making advice hard to give.

It’s already shaken some things up.

“Earlier this year we prepared educational materials concerning the process of registering to vote in New Hampshire,” Wester said in the affidavit. Those materials were based on the understanding of the new law that the campaign received from department officials, she added: students who vote are now residents, and must register their vehicles.

But as it became increasingly clear that the ongoing federal lawsuit – as well as basic questions as to the law’s function – had yet to be answered, the Warren campaign stopped handing out that information, Wester said.

“After preparing these materials we were advised not to use them with voters until the issue of the application of the exceptions contained in the definition of residency in the motor vehicle code were addressed and clarified,” Wester said.

The campaign did not clarify who advised them to stop handing out the material.

“We have chosen to provide less information instead of making assumptions of what the proper information could be under HB 1264,” Wester said in the filing.

The Warren court filing comes as voting groups and campaigns alike grapple with how to deal with the new law: whether to warn students of potential penalties or hold off on providing information.

NextGen, a progressive activism group, has opted to tell college students that they will need to register their cars and obtain driver’s licenses – despite uncertainty. A representative for the organization was not available to comment Thursday.

And it comes as numerous presidential campaigns have taken swipes at HB 1264 already.

In a May post on Twitter, former vice president and presidential candidate Joe Biden decried the new law, calling it a “voter suppression law that makes it harder for students in New Hampshire to participate in our political process.”

“This law should be overturned,” Biden wrote.

But the Biden campaign is also treading carefully when it comes to interacting with students over what the law means.

“HB 1264 is designed to suppress the vote in New Hampshire and the Vice President has called for it to be overturned,” said Meira Bernstein, communications director for Biden for President. “Until that date, our campaign will continue to work with college students, advocates, and lawyers to ensure that all Granite Staters can exercise their right to vote.”

A spokesman for Sen. Kamala Harris’s New Hampshire campaign, Nate Evans, also took aim at the law, saying it “caused considerable confusion on how to lawfully cast ballots on campuses and, if upheld, will disenfranchise college students.”

“The campaign is committed to helping ensure students have the information they need to exercise their right to vote,” Evans said.

The team for former Congressman Beto O’Rourke weighed in too Thursday.

“In passing HB 1264, New Hampshire Republicans made a transparent attempt to disenfranchise students, and as the state continues to neglect to clarify how they plan to implement and execute the law, confusion builds and misinformation continues to spread about how our fellow Granite Staters can exercise a basic constitutional right,” Mike Ollen, the O’Rourke state director, said in a statement. Ollen added that O’Rourke had proposed a “Voting Rights Act” that he said “would render onerous voting laws like HB 1264 moot.”

Spokespeople for other presidential candidates, including Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg, declined to comment Thursday on how the new law is affecting campaign operations.

Other stakeholders have expressed concern over the alleged uncertainty created by state officials. Wester’s affidavit was submitted by the state Democratic party as a response to an order for briefings from the federal district court.

“The passage of HB 1264 has resulted in tremendous confusion among public officials, campaigns and voters regarding the real life consequences of registering to vote in the state of New Hampshire,” said Bill Christie, legal counsel for the state party. “This is exactly why the New Hampshire Democratic Party has asked the federal court to enjoin HB 1264 prior to the 2020 presidential primary.”

Elizabeth McClain, the town clerk of Hanover, host of Dartmouth College, also submitted an affidavit to the court Monday, stating that the Secretary of State’s office had failed to give clear guidance on one key question: Do those who register to vote need to obtain driver’s licenses?

It’s a question McClain says has been posed to her office “dozens” of times in the past year.

But when McClain asked the state office, she was told that “HB 1264 does not change any election law” and that all motor vehicle-related questions should be referred to the Division of Motor Vehicles, she wrote in her affidavit.

“Based upon my professional experiences, HB 1264 is causing significant confusion that could ultimately cause qualified potential voters to elect not to vote,” McCain wrote.

The court subm issions have arrived as Judge Joseph Laplante of the U.S. District Court in Concord contemplates whether to order a “certification” hearing in the state supreme court – a special process by which the state’s highest court can weigh in on what the law actually does before the federal case proceeds.

A hearing on that motion is set for Wednesday at 10 a.m. in federal court in Concord.

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