Belmont, Laconia hold first election under new SB 3 voting law

  • Laconia Ward 1 moderator Kevin Trefethem counts the absentee ballots during the special election for the District 9 state rep seat. The election was the first contest in New Hampshire to be held under the new registration requirements for same-day registration put in place under Senate Bill 3. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Lynda Brock, Laconia Ward 6’s supervisor of the checklist, checks a woman’s driver’s license address against the city’s list of registered voters during the special election for the District 9 state representative seat Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/12/2017 5:50:18 PM

As the president’s voter integrity commission arrived in New Hampshire, voters in a special election that netted less than 2,300 votes found themselves acting as the litmus test for the state’s new voting regulations.

The special election for the District 9 state representative seat between Stephen Whalley and Charlie St. Clair, which St. Clair ultimately won, 1,267-1,009, according to unofficial totals released by the New Hampshire Democratic Party, was the first one in which voters had to prove they live in New Hampshire “more than any other place” under Senate Bill 3’s new requirements.

Opponents argue the new law is unconstitutional, would slow down the voting process and would discourage voters due to steep legal penalties.

But voting officials said voters weren’t deterred Tuesday, due mostly to the hyper-local nature and small scale of the election.

“Everybody knows everybody,” said Kevin Trafethen, Laconia’s Ward 1 moderator. “All politics are local, and here, half the people in this room know all the people in Laconia,” he said, gesturing to the voting staff, many of whom have been running the ward’s elections for years.

Signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu in July, SB 3 took formal effect Sept. 8, changing proof-of-domicile requirements for voters in New Hampshire. Residents trying to vote without a driver’s license or vehicle registration can either provide documentation within 30 days of voting, or face investigation by the state.

The law was challenged by the New Hampshire Democratic Party and League of Women Voters during a hearing Monday in Hillsborough County Superior Court.

Judge Charles Temple handed down his decision early Tuesday morning, just before District 9’s polls opened at 7 a.m. Temple allowed the new proof-of-domicile requirements to go into effect, but not its penalties – which carry a fine of $5,000 or up to a year in jail if an individual is found to have provided false information.

By midafternoon, at least half of Laconia’s wards had seen few new registered voters, and only one person who did not have the proper identification on them, requiring them to sign an affidavit swearing they lived in the ward and have their picture taken.

Wayne Eshelman, who has lived in Ward 2 since 1974 and has been the moderator for more than 20 years, said the voting population in his ward tends to stay relatively stable.

“Even during the presidential elections, I’d imagine we’d only have to deal with someone who doesn’t have their ID maybe once or twice,” he said.

Trefethen agreed, saying voter turnout for the special election between was expected to be low due to the nature of special elections. In Laconia, each ward received around 200-300 ballots for the election, while Belmont received 700. Both municipalities counted ballots by hand.

But even if questions arose, voting officials said they were confident they could tackle them – the state Attorney General’s office had deployed several of its staff members to each ward to address any confusion, and election staff received 2½ hours of training on the new law prior to the election.

“We’re well-prepared,” said Mark Condodemetraky, Ward 3 moderator. “To us, it’s just another procedure we have to follow.”

Candidates were split along party lines about whether they favored SB 3, although both agreed voters should be educated on the state’s voting laws before attempting to vote.

St. Clair, the Laconia Democrat who won the election, said he was against any law that “makes it difficult for legitimate voters to vote.”

“People get wound up about students or people who only live here part of the time voting, saying ‘They don’t live here,’ ” he said. “But they do. ... If someone lives here but also has a residency in Florida and wants to vote here, they should be able to choose. They can’t vote in two states, so they might as well get to choose.”

And St. Clair was not shy about praising the virtues of voting in a small city like Laconia.

“I never show an ID when I vote. Why? Because they know me,” he said. “If someone doesn’t know you, I get it, I’m all about it, let’s see some ID. But when I go in and they say, ‘Hey Charlie, how are you? You look good. Now let’s see some ID,’ That’s just silly, and I resent that.”

“Visual recognition is the best form of identification,” he added.

Whalley, St. Clair’s Republican opponent, voiced support for the law, arguing that the state’s elections were vulnerable to fraud unless regulations changed. He cited a column written last week by Kris Kobach, vice chairman of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which suggested that the 5,313 people who registered to vote on Election Day in 2016 with out-of-state licenses who had not applied for new licenses by Aug. 31 of this year, according to Secretary of State’s office information, were fraudulent.

“Those numbers to me suggested the possibility of widespread fraud,” he said.

Kobach’s column drew criticism from Secretary of State Bill Gardner and others during a meeting of the commission at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown on Tuesday. Gardner disputed the notion that the driver’s license data – which he helped compile at the request of N.H. House Speaker Shawn Jasper, a Republican – proved voter fraud in the Granite State.

“Those numbers are out there,” Gardner said of Kobach’s conclusions. “But those facts don’t create proof. There’s another step – there’s a second step – to create the proof.”

For his part, Whalley, too, said that fraud was unlikely in at least one New Hampshire election – Tuesday’s.

“There isn’t enough at stake,” he said.

As to whether SB 3 will have an impact on voting in the state, voting officials agreed that only time – and larger contests – would tell. In Laconia, only 16 percent of the city’s 11,669 registered voters turned out. In Belmont, 8.6 percent of the town’s 5,080 registered voters turned out.

“I don’t think today is a good test,” Condodemetraky said.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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