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New Hampshire college towns, key to Clinton victory, see spike in absentee voting

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    Primary Day voting in Piedmont, Hanover and Lebanon, Linda Muri, of Hanover, N.H., works for the first time as a ballot clerk at the polls in Leverone Fieldhouse in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 8, 2020. "I knew they would have a hard time getting volunteers," she said of why she signed up. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Monitor staff
Published: 11/2/2020 4:06:01 PM

To tell the story of Hillary Clinton’s knife’s-edge victory in New Hampshire in 2016 – or to autopsy the results – it would be hard to ignore one factor: college towns.

Back then, Clinton bested Donald Trump by just 2,736 votes across the whole state, delivering her New Hampshire’s four Electoral College votes by a fraction of a percentage point. Between the towns of Durham, Hanover, Keene and Plymouth, Clinton collected 14,815 votes more than Trump, far above her statewide margin of victory. Durham, Hanover and Keene alone each delivered more votes for Clinton than her overall state win.

It’s clear that typically Democratic-leaning college students can tip elections in New Hampshire. And in 2020, the turnout in college towns could be the highest yet, early numbers show.

But at a time when New Hampshire polls have demonstrated a wide lead for former vice president Joe Biden in the upcoming race, whether the college vote plays as crucial a role here is less sure.

“The wider the margin for the Democratic candidate, the relatively less important college towns become,” said Dante Scala, professor of political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. “Still important, but not life or death.”

Exactly how many college students would vote this year has been at the whim of two major factors: a change in New Hampshire voting law that could discourage some from voting, and a pandemic that has complicated the voting process for students who may be taking classes out of state.

For years, the debate over how much and how easily to allow college students living in New Hampshire to vote here has devolved into an all-out partisan war. Both Republicans and Democrats have recognized that student voter participation likely swung not just the presidential election but the tightly fought race for U.S. Senate as well, in which Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan was able to force out Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte by just 1,017 votes.

Since then, the Republican Legislature under Gov. Chris Sununu passed a pair of voting bills intended to add stricter guidelines for who counts as a domiciled person in the state for voting purposes, and Democrats have sought to hold up the implementation of the laws in the courts.

Democrats say the implementation of one of those laws, House Bill 1264, will discourage students from voting because it makes voting an act of declaring residency in New Hampshire, effectively subjecting college student voters to requirements like registering their cars and getting driver’s licenses where they didn’t have to before.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has added a new layer of uncertainty, throwing into question how many students would be on campus to vote and how many would avail themselves of the expanded absentee rules.

But two key indicators are suggesting high turnout despite the odds. College towns broke records for turnouts in September, the state’s primary, without presidential candidates on the ticket at all.

Hanover, for example, received 2,394 votes for the Democratic ballot – a 70% increase compared to 2018, when 1,406 people voted.

Durham and Keene set modest increases over 2018’s record, but both were way up from the 2016 state primary. Where 993 people voted in Durham in September 2016, and 2,273 voted on Sept. 8.

The absentee ballot requests for the general election point to high engagement, too. In Durham, as Friday, 3,813 absentee ballots had been requested and 3,471 returned, according to Rachel Deane, the deputy town clerk. That’s far more than the 750 absentee ballots requested in the town in 2016, she said.

Hanover’s tallies tell a similar story. The host of Dartmouth College had seen 4,699 absentee ballots requested and 4,117 returned as of late Thursday, according to the clerk’s office. A typical year sees about 1,200 absentee ballots in a presidential election.

There’s also some evidence that college students are largely voting in person. New Hampshire law allows any college student who has gone back to their home state due to the coronavirus to still mail in an absentee ballot to New Hampshire, even if they had established a domicile in New Hampshire by living on campus.

Late last month, the New Hampshire Republican Party requested the state’s attorney general to clarify the law, arguing that college students who leave campus have relinquished their right to domicile, but that request was largely rebuffed by the office.

In the end, it doesn’t look like that distinction will matter much. Few students appear to be taking that option to begin with. While Durham and Hanover don’t keep specific tallies of how many absentee ballots they mail out in-state versus out-of-state – and with those tallies a rough picture of how many college students may be voting from their parents’ houses – election officials in both towns said the number was very low.

Most college students who have been voting absentee have done so by dropping their ballots off in person, said Deane, the deputy clerk in Durham.

For Scala, who analyzes New Hampshire politics and teaches college classes on the subject, the unique environment of 2020 will prove a test for operatives in both parties.

Durham, for instance, had an absentee ballot event targeted to college students. But how many took advantage of the new absentee system, and the extra paperwork that it entails compared to Election Day, is another story.

“I’m curious just how strong the get-out-the-vote effort has been to those college students in these towns, especially given that I know that a lot of my students, they’re not on campus that much,” Scala said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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