Rep. Stephen Shurtleff: Granite State must protect student vote

For the Monitor
Published: 3/5/2018 12:15:11 AM

Imagine this: While you weren’t born and raised in the Granite State, you came to New Hampshire as a college student. You were eager to engage in your new community as part of a state known for its tradition of upholding the nation’s democratic ideals and strong civic engagement. New Hampshire is where you study, work and shop. You’re engaged with local issues and looking forward to making your opinion heard at the ballot box this November. However, before Election Day arrives, you learn that you are ineligible to cast a ballot in the state you call home.

This could soon be the reality for far too many voters who call New Hampshire home but are not officially residents of the Granite State. This population includes the more than 6,000 nonresident students in the University of New Hampshire system alone. Current law allows those who are domiciled in New Hampshire – meaning they spend more time here than any other place and will for “the indefinite future” – to cast a ballot here. However, efforts from conservative lawmakers to influence the system by discouraging voters who don’t agree with them could lead to changes to the law that are not only undemocratic but also detrimental to our state’s future.

Two pieces of legislation currently moving through the state Legislature – House Bills 372 and 1264 – would essentially make “domicile” the equivalent of “residence” under the law. This means that a student domiciled in New Hampshire could vote with an out-of-state license. However, within 60 days following the election, she would need to obtain a New Hampshire license and pay car registration fees, or else face misdemeanor charges. With a charge of $50 for a license and potentially hundreds more in state and municipal fees, these bills would constitute a post-election poll tax. If either passes, thousands of New Hampshire students will face an undemocratic choice: pay the fines or be denied the right to vote.

I am proud of New Hampshire’s commitment to and engagement in America’s democracy. To instill these ideals in our state’s next generation of leaders, we need to encourage young people to be active in their local communities, and that includes participating in elections. Passing HB 372 or 1264 would do just the opposite, lessening young citizens’ faith in the system as well as discouraging a sense of civic duty.

It’s also no secret that New Hampshire is home to an aging population, with many of our bright, young Granite Staters leaving to pursue careers elsewhere. Today’s young people are more transient than previous generations, and lawmakers ought to do all they can to encourage those who are coming to New Hampshire for college to remain in the state and contribute to our economy after graduating. Anchoring new Granite Staters to our communities by continuing to allow them to vote here will help them make the decision to remain in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire’s students won’t be the only ones affected if this legislation passes. People including members of the military, medical residents and visiting professors will be barred from the ballot with this post-election poll tax. We need to help make New Hampshire home for these individuals, not shut them out of their own communities.

Many Granite Staters are rightfully concerned about the security of our elections, but passing these restrictive measures is not how we ensure secure elections in New Hampshire. Common-sense reforms such as automatic and online voter registration would help keep our state’s voter rolls secure and accurate. Denying students and others the ability to vote does nothing to protect our elections and merely hampers the democratic process.

Gov. Chris Sununu has said that he “hates” HB 372 and would not support any legislation to suppress the student vote in New Hampshire. If either of these bills makes it to his desk, Gov. Sununu must keep his promise to New Hampshire’s students and exercise his veto power. With HB 1264 passing the House Election Law Committee, it’s more important than ever for Gov. Sununu to double down on this commitment.

New Hampshire’s government is supposed to be of, by and for the people, but implementing HB 372 or HB 1264 would run contrary to this fundamental principle. For the sake of our democracy and the future of our state, New Hampshire citizens and lawmakers should welcome young people with open arms, not pass legislation restricting eligible voters from casting a ballot. To do so, lawmakers must reject House Bills 372 and 1264.

(Rep. Stephen Shurtleff of Penacook is the Democratic leader in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.)

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