My Turn: Republicans’ dangerous game of voter roulette

  • Gary Hirshberg AP

For the Monitor
Published: 3/9/2017 12:15:01 AM

Senate Bill 3, a plainly transparent effort to prevent younger voters from participating in our most sacred and patriotic electoral process, poses serious political risk to Gov. Sununu and other bill proponents. It is very likely to fuel a harsh and decisive blowback when our next election rolls around 20 months from now. Gov. Sununu and his allies are placing a very dangerous bet.

Already, six weeks into this presidency, voters are tiring of President Trump’s erratic and irresponsible weekly eruptions of unsupported, evidence-free charges and allegations on many topics. These clearly concerted attempts to distract the media and the public from mounting questions about Russian ties, Chinese loans, real estate holdings and other ethics issues are simply eroding his credibility.

But here at home, Trump’s utterly groundless allegations of widespread voter fraud in New Hampshire have led to indignation as citizens across the political divide rise to defend our state. Gov. Sununu’s failure to challenge the president to produce evidence to support these allegations is a real betrayal of the hard-working volunteers who manage our statewide voting system. Instead of demanding a retraction from the president and condemning this attack on the integrity of our state’s, towns’ and cities’ voter registration and election workers, the governor and some Republican leaders have actually embraced the Trump/Bannon “alternative facts” nonsense.

Indeed Sununu and SB 3’s sponsors are using the false threat of voting improprieties to marginalize and discourage our college students from registering to vote as New Hampshire residents. SB 3 is no accident: Sununu proclaimed his desire to discourage student voting during his campaign and in his first post-election WMUR interview.

This is terribly misguided. The right to vote goes to the heart of our democratic process, and if anything we need to find ways to encourage voting, particularly among young people, without throwing up burdensome regulatory obstacles.

Moreover, if passed, this bill and the associated efforts to discourage young voters would have damaging, long-term impacts on our state’s economy. Most business leaders I know believe the last thing we should be doing is making it harder or less appealing for young people to want to make New Hampshire their home. Yet this bill would do exactly that. Our state leaders should embrace efforts that encourage students and young people to commit to becoming permanent New Hampshire residents after their studies or temporary residency is completed.

The political calculus here is obvious, but this is where Gov. Sununu and the Republicans are truly playing with fire. There is no doubt that the governor and his allies have a political problem on N.H. campuses. In November, Trump lost Durham, Hanover, Plymouth and Keene by nearly 19,000 combined votes while losing the entire state by a mere 2,700 votes. The Hassan-Ayotte and Van Ostern/Sununu margins in these towns were similarly one-sided in Democrats’ favor.

But instead of acknowledging the wound and committing to heal this divide by educating and engaging in concerted efforts to persuade young voters about their party’s merits, SB 3 seeks to amputate the injury altogether. Rather than try to win politically, the governor and sponsors of this bill want to obliterate the problem altogether by changing the definition of residency.

According to the League of Women Voters, SB 3 would create a difficult situation for people living, working or studying in New Hampshire, often for several years, but who can’t say that they will continue living in New Hampshire when their situation changes. But redefining residency will not solve the Republicans’ problems and indeed may worsen them.

If Gov. Sununu and the Republicans ever wanted to give young people and Democrats a powerful incentive to turn out in 2018, SB 3 will surely do the trick. Despite November’s one-sided results, younger voter turnout has been low for many cycles. However, SB 3 would give any of us who care about protecting our democracy a real reason to show up.

On Jan. 21, tens of thousands of N.H. citizens took to the streets in an extraordinary display of passion for preserving our democracy. Do Sununu and the Republicans really think this will dissipate 20 months from now, with the first opportunity for voters of all ages to express this passion where it really counts?

(Gary Hirshberg is chairman of Stonyfield Farm.)

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