Protecting Student Voters in New Hampshire

The New Hampshire House voted to strike misleading language on registration forms, which was especially confusing and intimidating for student voters. The state Senate must follow.

April 2, 2013
New Hampshire student voting

Tomorrow morning, a New Hampshire Senate committee will hear House Bill 119, which would eliminate misleading language on the state’s voter registration form. Several weeks ago the House voted 190-149 to strike this language, which is especially confusing and intimidating for student voters. Why is this news? Because it’s a vote to reverse the very law the same legislators passed just one year ago — legislation rightly ruled unlawful by a state court.

The Senate must follow the House’s lead and undo the damage wrought by their wrongheaded 2012 law. Tomorrow’s Senate committee hearing should be the first step down that path.

In recent years, many states across the country passed or attempted to pass restrictive voting measures that would make it more difficult for students to vote, but New Hampshire stands out as one of the most aggressive. In 2011, a bill in the state House would have created a special voter residency standard for students and members of the military who lived elsewhere prior to matriculating or being stationed in New Hampshire. The bill was intended to prevent “foolish” students from voting in state or local elections, said House Speaker William O’Brien. After strong opposition from the Brennan Center and others, including college groups across the political spectrum, the bill died on the House floor.

But in 2012, the legislature took another swipe at student voters when it passed — over a gubernatorial veto — a law adding language to the state voter registration form requiring applicants to swear they were subject to all the laws that apply to legal residents of New Hampshire. This requirement was a thinly-veiled attempt to target student voters, who have a constitutional right to vote in the place where they call home — even if they can’t swear it will be their permanent residence for the foreseeable future. This gives students, who may be from a different part of the state or another state altogether, the opportunity to have their say on local and campus issues that matter to them during their stay in college.

In vetoing the law, then-Gov. John Lynch (D) noted the harm to students, stating: “Any changes to our voting procedures must ensure a person’s constitutional right to vote is protected. This bill does not meet that test.” But the legislature chose to ignore that wise warning and overrode the veto.

But Lynch wasn’t the final word on the bill’s failure to protect voting rights. Just prior to the November 2012 election, a state Superior Court blocked the new registration law from taking effect. The court rightly found that the new registration requirement was a clear contradiction of New Hampshire law, which explicitly says all students attending school in the state have the right to vote in New Hampshire. The court ordered the state to change its registration form because it was confusing, unlawful, and disenfranchising for new voters, especially students.

Rather than attempt to muzzle young voters, legislators would be wise to engage this increasing portion of the electorate. With a vote eliminating this misleading registration language, the New Hampshire House clearly gets the message. Now the Senate must follow. New Hampshire legislators can affirm students’ constitutional right to register to vote wherever they call home, and their commitment to ensuring our elections are free, fair and accessible for all.

Photo by jimmywayne.