Yes – new state legislation impacts students

This piece has been adapted from a submission to a NH college newspaper. 

I am disappointed to see that the new amendment to the voter registration law (Senate Bill 3) “draws support from students.” Disappointed, but hardly surprised. When I asked a group of students last year, during one of the most heated primaries in recent election cycles, whether they were planning to vote that day only a few said yes. The quotes from students in the previous article demonstrate that the problems raised by this bill are not on students’ radar. This is unfortunate, because since the gutting of the Voting Act of 1965 by the supreme court in 2013 such legislation has proliferated across the country—and more will come. As an institution of learning committed to civic engagement, the response of student, faculty, and staff of our college should not be “ho hum”; rather, we should be fighting tooth-and-nail against attacks on the most elemental of our democratic rights.

Until the passing of this bill, New Hampshire—the state of “live free or die”—had been a model for accessible voting. This bill commences a trend of voter suppression that will impact students in NH. For instance, the act requires voters to prove they have a domicile in the state of NH. This can be proven with documentation such as a NH driver’s license, a rental lease for NH, a NH car registration, a mortgage statement for a property in NH, or a property tax statement for a NH property (notably, a student ID is not accepted as a proof of residence for any statutory matters). Given that many students retain out-of-state licenses or residency at their parents’ homes in other states (from Maine to California), these are documents many students will not be able to show. Thus, although the Crier article claims that registration at an institute of learning counts as a “verifiable act” (also, “verifiable act” is a phrase not found in the bill), the eligibility of the student ID is not stipulated anywhere in the bill. Rather, it states merely that one’s domicile is “the place where a person spends most nights of the year”. This has been further clarified as the requirement that one must have lived in New Hampshire for a period of at least 30 days before voting and must show intent to stay. How can all this be proved with a student ID card, which lists only the year of enrollment and is a renewed every fall upon re-enrollment? Proponents of the bill insist that students’ right to vote is protected, but nothing in the bill guarantees this. If the student-ID is someday deemed ineligible, NH students will only be able to vote in the state if, for example, they register their car in NH, which incidentally requires one of the documents listed above and costs upwards of $60-$100 (effectively creating a poll-tax, i.e. a requirement that one pays to vote). Let’s grant that the clerk accepts the student ID as proof of domicile; problems persist. For example, the New Hampshire primary for the 2020 election is set for early February. Spring semester typically begins in the middle of January. This means that non-NH transferring students will be caught in a no-mans-land, unable to vote in NH and possibly unable to get back to their resident state of voter registration. For outgoing seniors, the stipulation that they show intent to stay may mean that those returning homes in other states after graduation could be barred from voting. Will the clerk ask if you are a senior or if you are planning to transfer? Should they be able to ask this, or is this complicating matters unnecessarily?

Overall, the bill puts in place a system whereby to vote you need to prove you’re a citizen of New Hampshire rather than a citizen of the United States of America. Despite the seeming unconstitutionality of this, other states impose similar obstacles—and it does impact students’ say in their government. As a volunteer for the Bernie campaign in 2016, I often phoned or visited homes to talk to a voter only to find s/he was away at college. I talked with many students who expressed frustration at not being able to vote in the state where they went to school, and not being able to find the time or money to get back home “just to vote.” By leaving room for interpretation, the bill makes it possible for NH students to be barred from voting. Its vague language does not adequately protect students’ right to vote. Our response should be vociferous condemnation, not a complacent shrug.

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