Editorial: Call HB 372 what it is – a poll tax

Published: 12/17/2017 12:10:10 AM

New Hampshire prides itself on its high voter turnout, politically informed citizenry and high level of participation in public service. No other state or nation has 424 legislators willing to serve for a pittance.

New Hampshire is an aging state that, to prosper, sorely needs to attract young, well-educated residents. Its colleges need students, especially nonresident students who pay far higher tuition fees. Why then, would Republicans want to pass a law, House Bill 372, that would discourage students from voting here or attending a New Hampshire college?

The answer, we believe, is in the numbers. Donald Trump lost New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton by just under 3,000 votes. Gov. Maggie Hassan beat Sen. Kelly Ayotte by 1,000 votes.

There are more than 6,000 nonresident students in the University of New Hampshire system alone. Assuming, as Republicans have for decades, that more college students vote Democratic than Republican, making it difficult for students to vote makes sense if the point is winning rather than fostering greater participation in the democratic process.

The bill’s sponsors disingenuously describe it as a housekeeping measure meant to clear up alleged confusion created by the use of both “resident” and “domicile” in election law. The law grants the vote to people domiciled in New Hampshire, meaning staying here more than any other place and doing so “for the indefinite future.” That status applies to out-of-state students, members of the military serving in New Hampshire, medical residents, visiting professors and others in similar circumstances.

The bill seeks to make domicile the effective equivalent of a residence and strike “for the indefinite future” from the law. The change, according to the New Hampshire American Civil Liberties Union, is not innocuous. It would mean that a student domiciled in New Hampshire could vote using an out-of-state driver’s license but once he or she did, the voter would have 60 days to get a New Hampshire driver’s license and, if the student had a vehicle, to register it in the state or face misdemeanor charges.

A New Hampshire license costs $50 and, depending on the length of the line, can take, not counting travel time, an hour or more to procure. Registering a vehicle, depending on its age and initial sales price, can cost hundreds of dollars. Having to spend that amount of time and money could be a big disincentive to vote, which is the real point of what has been a decades-long Republican effort to disenfranchise students.

The bill, should it pass, will be challenged in court. Opponents say it would function as an illegal, after-the-fact poll tax, and we believe they’re right. But it may not get that far.

Earlier this week, Gov. Chris Sununu was asked about the bill in a recorded conversation. His response was emphatic: “I will never support anything that suppresses the student vote. End of story.”

HB 372 would do exactly that. Its passage would be bad for students and others living and working in New Hampshire for a lengthy, but perhaps temporary period, bad for participation in the democratic process and bad for the future of a graying state.

If it hits his desk, the governor should veto it.

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