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Liz Wester: High voter turnout among young people is the result of hard work



For the Monitor
Saturday, September 29, 2018

If you followed the results of our state’s primary election earlier this month, you most likely saw a couple of key headlines. Chris Pappas could make history as New Hampshire’s first openly gay member of Congress, a 27-year-old Afghan refugee may soon be representing her community in Concord, and voter turnout among college students was through the roof.

But what about those bills moving through the state Legislature that groups like ours, the New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights, said would prevent the state’s young people from making their voices heard at the polls?

Those bills are still around, but thanks to the work of incredible organizations such as NextGen America, the New Hampshire Young Democrats, the New Hampshire Youth Movement and so many others, college students across the state are executing their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote despite attempts from Concord to make the process more difficult. And we won’t stop fighting until all Granite Staters have fair and equal access to the ballot – and that includes college students.

Luckily New Hampshire allows voters to register on election day, but bills like Senate Bill 3 and House Bill 1264 are blatant attempts from conservative lawmakers to chip away at that constitutional right.

SB 3, which is currently being challenged in court, will confuse new voters with longer registration forms and requires individuals who register to vote within 30 days of an election to show some type of proof that they are domiciled in the town in which they’re going to vote or face penalties for voter fraud. These changes will serve to only lengthen already long voting lines, which in turn will push students away from voting. HB 1264, meanwhile, changes the definition of “domicile” under state law to be equivalent with “resident,” thereby preventing many Granite Staters who live, study, work and spend money in New Hampshire – but aren’t residents of the state – from casting a ballot for their elected representative. HB 1264 won’t go into effect until after this election and so will not have an impact on this election.

If these bills seem confusing, you’re right; they represent a continued effort by conservatives in Concord to keep eligible Granite Staters – particularly college students – from casting a ballot through complex, undemocratic legislation that undermines the very spirit of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status.

And the misinformation doesn’t stop there. Last year, fliers at St. Anselm College wrongly told students they couldn’t vote because of SB 3, and at Southern New Hampshire University students who live in a dorm that lies on the Manchester-Hooksett town line are being told they must determine which side of the town line their room falls and vote there, despite all students having a Manchester address.

It’s clear that attempts to keep New Hampshire’s students from the polls are a reality in 2018, yet despite all of this, voter turnout across the state’s college towns soared this year compared to 2016. In Keene, for instance, Democratic turnout was up 72 percent compared to two years ago, and in Durham, it more than doubled.

This participation was far from inevitable but due in large part to the many progressive organizations working on campuses across the state to make sure all New Hampshire students from across the political spectrum are aware of their rights and how to make their voices heard at the polls.

For instance, the New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights recently held a student voting rights summit. The event gathered town clerks and student leaders to inform them on how to be able to educate students on how voting works in their community and to better understand their rights at the polls. These and other organizations are also empowering activists on campuses across the state to make sure students know where, when and how to cast their ballot.

Laws like SB 3 and HB 1264 have led to serious confusion among New Hampshire’s college students about the right to vote, and these groups are hard at work to clear it up.

The number of students who made it to the polls on Sept. 11 does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that these bills do not cause unneeded and unwarranted confusion on election day. The need for these groups to be present on campuses and for informational sessions with town clerks to be held is evidence to the contrary.

Rather, these numbers show that the hard work of groups like NextGen, the Young Democrats and the Youth Movement to empower the young people of New Hampshire to exercise their fundamental civil right and be a part of New Hampshire’s strong tradition of civic engagement is paying off.

With a critical election just weeks away and only two years until our next presidential vote, now is the time to ensure free and fair access to the polls for all Granite Staters. Our partner organizations are working to make that happen, and they won’t stop until it’s a reality.

(Liz Wester is the state director for America Votes New Hampshire, which helps to coordinate the New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights.)