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New residency laws complicate college get-out-the-vote efforts 

  • Plymouth State University student Leanne Burgess (center) signs up to get more information on the new student voting laws as Brian Rogers stands with his dog, Paco, greeting other students on campus Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Brian Rogers and his dog Paco talk with Plymouth State University students about the new student voting laws in front of the Student Services Center on campus on Thursday, August 22, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Plymouth State University students Zach Weitz (center with cap) and Jackson Branner--both from Massachussetts sign up for more information on the new student voting laws on the campus Thursday morning as students are moving into their dorms in Plymouth. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/23/2019 7:23:11 PM
Modified: 8/23/2019 7:22:57 PM

For the students clustered on the curb, it was a simple enough question. “Would you be interested in voting here or back home?”

It was 10 a.m., freshman move-in day at Plymouth State University. The group of returning students had been wandering campus. The questioner: a man in his mid-20s standing with a Dalmatian and a clipboard.

Leanne Burgess, a rising junior from Bradford, Vt., had an answer ready, though not quite the one the questioner was hoping for. She’d be voting back home.

“I know more about what’s going on locally in Vermont than I do in New Hampshire,” she explained. Plus, “it’s really easy to do an absentee ballot.”

The questioner, Brian Rogers, took it in stride. Absentee ballots are easy, he conceded. Burgess, of course, had every right to choose where to vote. But then he gave his pitch for voting in New Hampshire.

As a former student at Keene State College, Rogers said he had decided he would rather influence the officials making decisions on his life as a student, rather than his life at home. That meant voting for city councilors and state representatives who could directly affect his tuition or taxes, for instance.

“So ultimately, totally up to you,” he said, closing his pitch. “But I would encourage you to think a lot about voting here and learn kind of a little bit about who’s on the ballot here.”

Rogers was one of more than a dozen activists spread around campus, stopping new students with friendly questions as they lugged in their belongings. It’s a late-summer ritual that plays practically every year, by action groups and political campaigns, on campuses across the state.

But this year, there’s a snag. A bill that passed in 2018 changed state law to make voting in the state an act of residency, bringing with it new obligations that treat out-of-state college students in much the same way as longtime Granite Staters. And now, organizers have one more hurdle: car registrations.

As of July, casting a ballot in New Hampshire means declaring oneself a resident, which carries a series of responsibilities including the need to obtain a driver’s license and a car registration if owning a vehicle.

For Rogers’s group, NextGen, that means treading a careful line. NextGen opposes the bill tightening residency – House Bill 1264 – which Republicans cheered as putting students on an equal footing and Democrats have accused of being designed to deter students from voting at all.

To any students who would listen Thursday, advocates with survey sheets and voting pledges were telling students of the difficulties imposed by the new law, given high car registration fees across the state.

But the same organizers also want students to vote. And winning that argument now means enticing those same students to become residents in the Granite State.

The problem: Many don’t want to. A sample of over a dozen Plymouth students approached by voting groups revealed that many out-of-state students are content to vote back home.

For Burgess, it’s a matter of personal connection. Burgess knows her home elections – the candidates for Vermont governor and Legislature, the town officials.

“I’m pretty politically active,” she said.

Others cited the hassle of registration, and an unwillingness to give up residency in their home states.

In Plymouth on Thursday, teams of activists fanned out to key junctions outside dorms and student buildings to catch passersby. The same process took place Wednesday at Keene State College, and Friday at the University of New Hampshire.

Staff members, smiling, were cautious never to push the New Hampshire voting pitch too hard. And all of them detailed the new vehicle registration requirement.

It’s a dynamic affecting campaigns on both sides of the aisle. NextGen and others have walked around with flyers, detailing via flowchart the exact requirements for students who drive cars, drive others’ cars, or don’t drive at all. They have to, said Isabella Dickens-Bowman, a field organizer with NextGen.

“The fact of the matter is we want to get as many students as possible in turning them out to vote in New Hampshire,” she said. But, she added, “we would be remiss in not telling them about these new laws.”

“We can’t leave it out,” she added. “That’s not how it works. We don’t want it to be a scare tactic. We don’t want it to be a reason not to vote.”

Joe Sweeney, communications director for the New Hampshire Republican Party, said the party and its spin-off group, New Hampshire Young Republicans, are taking more or less the same approach.

“We’re in favor of everyone voting,” he said. “But we’re in favor of everyone voting where they want to vote.”

With six months before the Democratic presidential primary, some predict the dynamic could change. A flood of visits from U.S. senators and former vice presidents could convince some out-of-state students to take part in the state’s influential primary. But so far, many seem content to steer clear.

Just after 9 a.m., one activist for the New Hampshire Youth Movement, Dylan Carney, made a quick voting pitch to a student who declined to give her name.

“Can’t I just vote in my own state?” she asked while brushing by.

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