Katy Burns: Go ahead, get rid of same-day voter registration – but it will cost you

  • President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Thomas Foley hold up a T-shirt during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, May 20, 1993, after the president signed the motor voter bill. AP

Monitor columnist
Published: 12/4/2016 3:15:31 AM

Sometimes costs count. You’d think politicians – especially a politician here in the Cheap State, a politician from an amazingly political, smart and prolific family – would know that. Particularly if said politician is hell-bent on imposing his agenda on state government. That’s even truer when carrying out that agenda might be just a bit pricey.

I bring this up because Chris Sununu really, really doesn’t like our state’s election day voter registration law. Our soon-to-be governor made this dislike known shortly after the election because, as he told NHPR, he fears the votes of genuine Granite Staters are “being watered down by someone who’s ‘drive-thru voting,’ ‘drive-by voting.’ ”

(You know, all those phantom phony voters, famed in GOP folklore, who are delivered regularly to New Hampshire polls by invisible buses every election day and then, mysteriously, fade away into the mist.)

And he seemed to believe – or at least so he said – that this election day registration thing was inflicted on the good citizens of New Hampshire by a bunch of (equally imaginary) Democrats who had nefariously infiltrated good old Republican government.

I decided – since Chris Sununu has repeated that getting rid of Election Day voter registration is pretty near the top of agenda – to turn to David Scanlon, our senior deputy secretary of state, to ask him the likely cost of getting rid of election day voter registration.

It would – not could, but would – cost “millions,” he said.

Oops. Maybe Chris – and I call him “Chris” to distinguish young Mr. Sununu from all the other Sununus who pop up from time to time – should have asked before proposing. He could have asked David Scanlon. Heck, he could have asked me. I remember being relatively new to this famously stodgy and stingy state and following the story with great fascination.

Dastardly Democrats were not responsible for election day registration. It was honest-to-God real Republicans. With uber-Republican Judd Gregg in a starring role!

It seems New Hampshire adopted election day voter registration not in some burst of passion for a progressive program. We adopted it because of – what else? – the money. Precisely, our staunchly Republican government wanted to save those millions of dollars Scanlon talked about.

It’s all about what came to be called the Motor Voter law.

A short civics review: Elections in this country are, by and large, local and state affairs. States run them, and states make the rules – within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution. And by the early 1990s, elections across the nation were a patchwork of laws and customs, a lot of them bad, with all kinds of discrimination and exclusion rampant. Congress wanted to do something. But what? Well, elections might be state affairs, but there was a big loophole for the feds to take advantage of.

The federal government can make rules for federal elections – you know, stuff like contests for the U.S. Congress. And in the years following the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 to remedy rampant racial discrimination in federal elections, the Congress had turned its attention to other voter inequities. It had, in several smaller acts, mandated voting access to elderly and handicapped people and guaranteed absentee voting access to uniformed and overseas Americans.

Finally, in the early 1990s the pressure grew for registration standardization. In 1993, Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the National Voter Registration Act. While technically, it would apply to states only when there was a national election involved, realistically no state was going to put in place two separate and expensive voting systems. And so the bill would set some basic standards for all elections.

The bill was quickly labeled Motor Voter. The two words, unexceptional in most of the country, struck terror in the hearts of New Hampshire bureaucrats and pols. It would cost them a big pot of money.

The nickname came about because the bill mandated that states had to provide ample and convenient opportunity for their citizens to register to vote. No longer could some states and jurisdictions try to limit people’s voting opportunity by offering only restricted locations and hours for people to register. Specifically, the bill called for various state agencies that regularly dealt with ordinary citizens to offer voter registration opportunities – including voter registration forms and voter registration assistance in completing those forms – to their clients.

That includes motor vehicle departments that issue drivers’ licenses and renewals, agencies and offices that provide public assistance, departments that offer services to handicapped individuals and agencies dealing regularly with the elderly. And a state “must” designate other agencies, which may include public libraries, public schools, colleges and universities or agencies offering marriage licenses, hunting and fishing licenses and unemployment compensation.

All the amassed data had to be collected and forwarded to appropriate agencies, most often a central board of elections.

See a problem? Yep. New Hampshire didn’t have a centralized election department. Still doesn’t. We are ultra-decentralized, with each town or city compiling and keeping its own voter registration records. Being subject to Motor Voter – then or now – would require a large new state bureaucracy. It would cost the state millions and result in permanent new obligations.

But – a big but – a handful of states were exempt from the requirements of Motor Voter. They’d had election day voter registration before March 11, 1993, which gave them an automatic out. Salvation!

Alas. New Hampshire was not among them.

Our crafty pols, though, saw a glimmer of hope. The Motor Voter bill didn’t take effect until 1996. And our ever-resourceful Republican leaders, including then-governor Steve Merrill, sprang into action. They swiftly – swiftly as legislators can, anyway – put together and passed a bill in 1994 mandating election day registration in the Granite State and made it retroactively effective March 10, 1993.

And to make sure our newly minted law worked, they turned to Mr. Fixit, then-senator Judd Gregg, who did what he so often did best, back room finagling. With splendid legislative legerdemain, he worked with Senate leaders to get an amendment to the original Motor Voter law tacked onto a budget bill that quietly added the Granite State to the exempt states.

Voila! A budget-busting bureaucracy was averted. And has stayed averted, since every time another lawmaker has grumbled about getting rid of election day voter registration – and it has happened more than once – said lawmaker has been quietly reminded of the real cost of repeal. And has been told that if our state did repeal there would be no going back, no do-overs. We would henceforth be subject to Motor Voter, period.

I don’t know what young Sununu and the incoming Republican majority will do, of course. But in the past – in 1994 and since – when it has come down to choosing between ideological purity and what you might call our state’s legendary thrift, cheapness has won the day.

This is, after all, New Hampshire.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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