College students: New Hampshire is trying to stop us from voting

Five college students sue New Hampshire, saying a new form telling them they must, among other things, register their cars in the state to vote amounts to an illegal 'poll tax.'

Tim Boyd/AP/File
Jackie Haggett, a student at the University of New Hampshire, swears that her registration information is correct to a town election official as she registers to vote in Durham, N.H., Nov. 2, 2004. Eight years later, the New Hampshire legislature set higher hurdles for students registering to vote, including registering their cars and obtaining a NH driver's license.

Controversy over voter registration and ID laws typically centers on whether they disenfranchise poor and minority voters. Here in New Hampshire, a change in voter registration forms is facing a court challenge because of the hurdles it presents to college students.

College students have long been able to vote here while retaining residency in other states. But the Republican-controlled legislature voted to add a paragraph to registration forms requiring people to declare that they are subject to laws that apply to residents, including having to register their cars here and obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license.

That contradicts other laws on the books defining residency versus “voting domicile,” and because it includes fees, it’s an unconstitutional “poll tax” that impedes voting rights, the lawsuit claims.

“The amendment to the voter registration form was passed in a context of frustration that out-of-state students were voting in New Hampshire,” says Alan Cronheim, cooperating attorney with the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union Foundation, which filed the suit Sept. 12  on behalf of the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire and five out-of-state college students.

“Forty years ago the federal courts specifically required an out-of-state college student be allowed to vote [here]. This seems to be an effort by the legislature to revisit that issue,” he says.

In a close presidential race, the four electoral votes up for grabs in this battleground state are eagerly sought. It’s unknown whether the new form could discourage enough of the state’s roughly 30,000 out-of-state students from voting here to make a significant difference. But in 2008, a large majority of students here voted for Barack Obama.

“This common sense law simply clarifies what should be obvious to all of us – people should vote where they live,” New Hampshire House Speaker William O’Brien (R) said in early September. 

Part of the political context here is that politicians feel threatened by the influence that college students can have on local elections, says Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. In 2008, a Dartmouth student from Montana ran for treasurer of Grafton County and beat out a Republican incumbent. She went on to do a terrible job, Professor Fowler says. 

But to try to discourage out-of-state students from voting is “short-sighted” for Republicans, she adds. “In the 1980s, young people voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan … and that generation became the most loyal cohort of Republican voters.”

There’s also a controversial new voter ID requirement in New Hampshire, though people without ID can sign an affidavit, and some of the stricter parts of the law don’t kick in until 2013. That, combined with the registration form, are making for a confusing landscape for college students, Fowler and other professors say.

Nationally, about 7 out of 10 young people don’t know whether their state requires a photo ID to vote, and 8 out of 10 don’t know about early-registration rules, according to a poll this summer by CIRCLE, a youth-voting research center based at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. (New Hampshire allows registration on Election Day.)

While many students may decide to avoid a hassle and skip voting, or vote in their home states via absentee ballot, there’s a possibility that controversy over the new laws will mobilize young voters here.

“It’s becoming a tool for folks to actually encourage participation,” says Wayne Lesperance, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at New England College in Henniker, N.H. “People from the Obama campaign have said, ‘Look, they are trying to make it harder to vote; if you need a ride to the Department of Motor Vehicles [where state IDs are issued], we’ll take you.' ”

A FAQ sheet on the website of the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire explains there are conflicting laws now regarding whether they need to register a car or get a state driver’s license, and advises students them to contact the state attorney general’s office if they have questions.

But their lawsuit requests Strafford County Superior Court to order the secretary of state to reissue voter registration forms without the new paragraph, and to clarify on the website that people who count New Hampshire as their domicile for voting purposes do not have to obtain a driver’s license or register their vehicles here, unless they intend to remain indefinitely.

A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 19.

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