New Hampshire voting law bewilders college students

Democrats and advocates say they’re worried the law might prompt college students to sit out Election Day

Residents register to vote at the Londonderry High School in the 2016 New Hampshire primaries in Londonderry, NH on February 9, 2016. (Meredith Dake-O'Connor/CQ Roll Call) (CQ-Roll Call, Inc.)
Residents register to vote at the Londonderry High School in the 2016 New Hampshire primaries in Londonderry, NH on February 9, 2016. (Meredith Dake-O'Connor/CQ Roll Call) (CQ-Roll Call, Inc.)
Posted February 10, 2020 at 3:24pm

A New Hampshire law tightening the rules around residency is spurring confusion in the state that hosts the country’s first primary Tuesday, with Democrats and advocates saying they’re worried the law might prompt college students to sit out Election Day.

“College towns are trying to minimize the effects of this, but it’s always hard to tell with students,” says Linda Fowler, a Dartmouth College government professor.

In 2018, the Republican-controlled legislature passed the law, which redefined resident and domicile to have the same meaning. Proponents of the law say it matches those in every other state and won’t impact voting.

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The new law comes on the heels of Republican complaints over the 2016 Senate election victory of Democrat Maggie Hassan over Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte by only 1,017 votes out of 738,620 cast. In 2017, Kris Kobach, vice chairman of a since-disbanded presidential commission on voting fraud, said it was “likely” that more than 5,000 out-of-state voters had illegally tipped the scales in favor of the Democrat. New Hampshire’s secretary of state said there was no proof for that claim.

State officials released a letter in November clarifying the effect of the law, saying it means registering to vote triggers residency requirements under the motor vehicle code. That gives registrants 60 days to change a driver’s license if they drive in New Hampshire and to change their vehicle registration if they’re the owner.

Not meeting the license or registration requirements wouldn’t prevent anyone from voting, the letter says.

In an ongoing case, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing on behalf of two Dartmouth students, alleging the law acts as a poll tax in the form of car registration fees and that it puts a burden on students, young people and new voters.

The law’s sponsor, state Rep. Sherman Packard, says his intent was to restrict voting to residents, which is in line with laws in every other state. He expects no impact in election results.

In the town at the center of the ACLU’s lawsuit, though, Hanover Town Clerk Betsy McClain says messaging around the law has been confusing and some students have gotten the false impression that they need a state driver’s license to vote.

Dartmouth enrolls about 4,400 undergraduate and 2,100 graduate students. McClain estimates that about 3,500 Dartmouth students are registered to vote in Hanover.

Riley Gordon, a sophomore and president of the Dartmouth College Democrats, says there has been confusion over details of the law among some students, which the group is aiming to correct.

“It’s kind of a complicated message to get across,” he says of the potential motor vehicle requirements, “but we’re trying to present all the information as we know it, and hopefully that makes people feel a little more at ease about registering to vote here.”