My Turn: A little advice for lawmakers on voting reforms

For the Monitor
Published: 3/19/2017 12:30:10 AM

If anyone is looking for a shining example of how people participate in a democracy, they would be hard-pressed to find a better case than the great state of New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

As a college professor teaching political science, I support the sentiment that we should never rest on our laurels. We can still boost turnout and voter participation. The only true success would be 100 percent involvement of every eligible voter.

However, I’m concerned about the current dialogue in Concord among state lawmakers debating ways to reform our voting system. This issue is shaping up to be a classic example of a solution in search of a major problem. I respectfully suggest lawmakers proceed cautiously before tinkering with a time-tested process that boasts high turnout and clean results.

There are dozens of bills in the New Hampshire House and Senate that would change residency laws, definitions relative to who can and cannot vote, processes for double-checking the accuracy of voter registration and adding new restrictions to the voting booth. Lawmakers would be wise to think about this issue in three major areas: factual, practical and partisan politics.

Factually speaking, the governor, the secretary of state and election officials in our state all agree there is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud. Despite claims of thousands of illegal voters being bused into our state to vote in New Hampshire elections, there is no evidence this is true.

Is there voter fraud? Those overseeing our elections say there are isolated cases. How much fraud is there? If we don’t know precisely how many cases per election cycle, then let’s find out. It makes little sense to offer significant reforms if we don’t have a handle on the size and scope of the problem. If we are a nation of laws, then let’s use the rules we have to more closely examine questionable ballots and then decide what changes to make; that’s just common sense.

Second, there’s the practical narrative: The proposed voter reforms would have to be carried out by election officials in every community, who will be burdened to administer any new rules.

Here are some questions:

How do you verify who can vote and who can’t, especially if we are going to allow same-day registration, and follow constitutionally protected rules allowing people to vote?

How do you police this process? Do we send police officers to someone’s home to verify they are legitimate voters? Is that the image we really want in New Hampshire?

How do you manage this process? It is challenging to manage people on a busy day at any town voter polls. There is language in some residency bills that describe “intentionality to stay.” What does that even mean? Why complicate the language when a simple status quo guarantees access?

We do not, as a state, want to send a message to voters that we will make this difficult. Why would we ever discourage people from participating in democracy? I can think of no greater threat to the New Hampshire leadoff primary than creating a controversial, complicated and overly strict voter access system.

The third and final thought is more along partisan lines. As a teacher, I encourage my students to listen closely to all sides of a debate before making decisions. It doesn’t matter which political side you choose, there is one overwhelming truth in politics: Your words and your actions matter.

Our democracy should be built on the healthy exchange of ideas. Lawmakers on both sides should concentrate on winning the battle of ideas, not restricting access to the process. If you are trying to block voters because they disagree with your political ideas, remember this: If you turn these people away now, they will never come back to you in the future. Restricting access to voters who disagree with you is short-term thinking.

Our state must think long-term about ways to encourage people to vote. Don’t exclude voices and votes. Our forefathers handed us the keys to a healthy democracy, free from tyranny or exclusion. We must protect access for all.

(Wayne Lesperance is the dean of undergraduate studies at New England College and a professor of political science.)

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