Editorial: The politics of voter suppression

Published: 11/3/2019 6:00:20 AM

There is a game politicians who put party above principle play. It’s called “Tilt the Field.” Both parties play it, of course, but Republicans are really good at it. They – and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is part of that “they” – are doing their best to suppress voter turnout among students, the poor and people of color. In other words, people likely to vote for Democrats.

Elections are the playoffs and Super Bowl of politics. They are also the key to a functioning democracy. Rig them to give one party an unfair advantage and democracy has been subverted. The party in power turns a crank, the field tilts and their opponents have to play uphill on offense and downhill on defense.

College students, traditionally lackadaisical about voting, have been turning out in large numbers. Their participation in 2018 doubled the college turnout in 2014, according to Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education. That scared Republicans, who began turning the crank.

“The headline example is New Hampshire,” New York Times reporter Michael Wines said in a story last week. Wines was referring to a GOP-backed change that replaced, for purposes of voting, the word “domiciled” with “resident.” Previously students domiciled in New Hampshire with the intent of living here indefinitely could vote without fulfilling a key requirement of residency, the need to secure a New Hampshire driver’s license and auto registration.

The change, Republicans argued, was needed to prevent the voter fraud President Trump blamed for his 2016 loss in New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton. In-person voter fraud is virtually non-existent. It is Trump’s claim that thousands of out-of-state students were bused to New Hampshire to vote that’s fraudulent.

The law, House Bill 1264, was challenged as a de facto poll tax. In 2018 the state Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, ruled it constitutional though its intent was to discourage student voting. Two of the three justices in the majority were appointed by Gov. Sununu, who first opposed and then embraced the law.

The law is still in court – federal court that is. It’s been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, with backing from Democrats and the presidential campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

The ACLU is arguing that the law is too confusing to implement in upcoming elections, including the presidential primary in February, and they’re right. Agencies that should be able to explain just what the law does or does not do, including the Secretary of State’s Office and the Division of Motor Vehicles, have been unable to do so, Monitor State House reporter Ethan DeWitt found. Town clerks and poll workers don’t have answers. No one has explained if or when an effort will be made to match voter records with motor vehicle records, or if students or others living in the state temporarily will be fined or otherwise punished.

In testimony to the court, Hanover Town Clerk Elizabeth McClain said, “Based upon my professional experiences, HB 1264 is causing significant confusion that could ultimately cause qualified potential voters to elect not to vote.” That’s precisely what the Republican effort to suppress the vote in New Hampshire and dozens of other states is designed to do.

The relentless attempt to tilt the field must be resisted in the courts, with voter registration drives, with the courage to vote despite the potential, albeit unlikely, financial consequences, and most of all, with a turnout that ousts elected officials who, while muttering about the sanctity of elections, work to disenfranchise those they believe disagree with them.


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