On primary day, out-of-state college students largely unaware of new voting residency law

  • Two signs detailing how to register as undeclared voters greeted voters in Oyster River High School Tuesday, Durham's polling place in the New Hampshire presidential primary, Feb. 11, 2020. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

  • A sign in Durham on Tuesday directs new voters, such as University of New Hampshire students, to a clearinghouse to carry out same day registrations. Ethan DeWittMonitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 2/11/2020 8:24:10 PM

Pulling the lever for Bernie Sanders Tuesday was an easy call for Will Palmer. The progressive senator is practically entwined in his state’s political identity.

Not New Hampshire’s political identity – Vermont’s.

Palmer, a student at the University of New Hampshire, hails from Manchester, Vermont. The license plates on his car are green, like the state’s famous mountains. 

But Palmer wasn’t aware of the new voting requirements that could require him to register his car as a New Hampshire resident in the next two months. He’d seen no materials about it on the UNH campus and hadn’t heard it from canvassers in the weeks ahead. 

“It wasn’t in my mind at all,” he said. 

No signage was posted outside the polls directly relating to it, election officials weren’t talking about it unless asked and multiple students interviewed after voting said they did not know about the law. 

After years of debate in the Legislature and a protracted fight in federal court, Tuesday was the first major test of the state’s new voter registration law.

And in Durham, the home of the state’s flagship university with thousands of out of state students, the new requirements barely made a dent in the conversation. 

The simple reason: Most of them still don’t know about it.

House Bill 1264 merged the definitions of “domiciled” person and “resident”  in New Hampshire. The effect, state officials argue, is that students with out-of-state driver’s licenses are effectively declaring their residency upon voting. They did not need a New Hampshire driver’s license to vote Tuesday, but by voting they were accepting the obligation to get one and to register their car within 60 days after voting, the state has argued.

Those obligations, if found legal, would be new for a New Hampshire election. For decades, out-of-state college students could vote as domiciled persons, a designation that allowed them to cast ballots while keeping car registrations and driver’s licenses from other states. 

Opponents of the new law, who include the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and the state Democratic Party, say the law does not adequately spell out the obligations and can’t actually be enforced. Those groups are currently suing the state in the U.S. District Court in Concord to invalidate the law. 

But as the court battle continues, poll workers at Durham’s Oyster River High School made a conscious choice Tuesday to not tell students about the new residency law unless they asked.

And voters appeared largely in the dark. 

Poll workers said if voters did know about the new law, few were looking into it.

“To my knowledge, no new voter has asked about that law,” said Ann Shump, chairwoman of the supervisors of the checklist in Durham. “And we’re not sharing that unless they ask.” 

On Tuesday, Shump was in charge of the same-day registration room, a giant clearing-house down the hallway from the voting room. New voters were shepherded to the room and guided to long tables, where a dozen poll volunteers walked the newcomers through the registration process, collecting addresses and approving affidavits. 

If the volunteers were asked difficult questions from voters, they were instructed to bring them to Shump, she said. As of 1 p.m., no voter had.

Korynna Rankin, a sophomore from Greenfield, Mass., voted with her Massachusetts driver’s license. But she was permitted to use her Durham address when registering. 

She did not know about the car registration. “I find that interesting because it’s just the law here that college students are allowed to vote in New Hampshire,” Rankin said.

Part of the dearth of information at the polls on the new residency obligations for first-time voters was a result of a policy by the Secretary of State’s office. 

In federal court, that office and the Attorney General’s office initially argued that because car registrations relate to motor vehicle laws, town election officials are not required or even encouraged to tell voters about them. Voters should get information from the Division of Motor Vehicles or relevant town officials, state officials have said.

More recently, state officials modified that stance. At a press conference the week before the election, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said that the Department of Justice had posted a lengthy set of FAQs on its website. Election workers were asked to review that information and be ready to provide it at the polls. 

The Department also undergoes a series of training sessions for poll workers in the months ahead of the election, officials said Tuesday. 

“Prior to any election, the Attorney General’s Office and the Secretary of State’s Office provide comprehensive election procedure training to election officials in each community,” said Kate Spiner, communications director at the Department of Justice. “There is also written election guidance distributed to all election officials prior to any election.”

That has translated down to the local level. 

“Our understanding is that whether or not they vote today, registering to vote and voting has nothing to do with what they're going to do 60 days from now,” said Shump.

“It’s their job to know the law,” she added. 

In practice Tuesday, student voters did not know the complexities of the new law. And once told, they were unsure whether they felt compelled to go through with re-registering their car or getting a New Hampshire license. 

“I might think about it,” said Dakota Bagley, a student from East Bridgewater, Mass. who voted Tuesday. “But they haven’t told us anything about it, so it’s not really on my mind.”

But all agreed: Law or no law, voting in the New Hampshire primary was too important to sit out. 

“It’d make me a little more hesitant I think,” Rankin said. “But I would still do it just to vote here. Because I feel like my vote matters more here than it does in Mass.”

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