HANOVER — A new state election law has left some members of the public concerned about voting and residency requirements when they go to the polls.
But, according to Hanover Town Clerk Betsy McClain, a New Hampshire driver’s license is not required to actually register, or to vote.
“(The law) doesn’t affect the election process at all,” McClain said, adding that she hopes potential voters aren’t deterred by misconceptions surrounding the law. “Every vote will be counted, and nobody will be turned away.”
McClain’s clarification is a key point for college students who grew up in another state and might be reluctant to vote in the 2020 presidential elections because of changes to the law.
The law, HB 1264, which went into effect this summer, amends the term “resident” to mean the same thing as domiciled, which is in the state constitution’s section on voting. Prior to the law, people who lived in New Hampshire part time (such as many college students) were able to vote in the state by providing proof of a “domicile,” without actually becoming full-time residents. Now, under the new law, anyone who registers to vote in the state automatically becomes a New Hampshire resident and has to comply with the state’s motor vehicle laws.
Technically, that means anyone who registers to vote needs to get a New Hampshire driver’s license and register their car (but not if their parents own it) within 60 days of registering to vote. However, that wouldn’t be enforced at the polls, McClain said. She cited a Nov. 7 memo, which was sent to her and co-signed by Secretary of State William Gardner, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, and Department of Safety Commissioner Robert Quinn.
“No one can be denied the right to register to vote or vote for failing to meet the requirements of the motor vehicle code,” their memo states.
McClain said she hopes a voter registration event Wednesday will help clear some of the confusion surrounding the law. Hanover officials are holding the event from 3 to 5 p.m. in the 1930 room of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth.
Hanover employees also will be available to hand out copies of the memo for anyone who is still confused about what HB 1264 means for them.
The event is also an effort to cut down on some Election Day traffic. McClain said the office generally sees around 1,000 people, mostly students, register to vote in Hanover the day of for elections.
College students played a major role in the 2016 elections, helping lift Hillary Clinton to a narrow victory in the state over Donald Trump, and also boosting Democrat Maggie Hassan’s bid to unseat Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte. In Hanover, Clinton won 6,561 votes to just 926 for Trump; she also won Plymouth, home to Plymouth State University, by a wide margin.
Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to suppress voting by college students under the new law, while Republicans say the legislation simply clarifies state law and brings New Hampshire more into line with other states. Gardner, the secretary of state, also supports the legislation.
Although the law has no direct impact at the polls, driving as a New Hampshire resident (after the 60-day mark) without a state-issued license is a violation of the motor vehicle code and could potentially result in a fine.
“I’m a little uncomfortable that there are ways to enforce the motor vehicle laws using voter records,” McClain said, adding that her concern is merely hypothetical for now.
But it’s a concern the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union shares as well. Early this year, the ACLU, along with two Dartmouth students and the New Hampshire Democratic Party filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that HB 1264 amounted to a poll tax due to the motor vehicle requirements following registration. Last week, the ACLU requested a preliminary injunction in the case, partly because of the confusion over the motor vehicle requirements associated with the law.
The injunction said potential voters could face, “irreconcilable confusion over whether the acts of registering to vote or of voting will subject them to potential criminal liability.” The ACLU went on to argue that the concern over possible criminal liability might prevent students and others from registering to vote.
“There is an enormous amount of confusion about this law,” said Henry Klementowicz, staff attorney at ACLU-NH.
For Alexander Rauda, chief of staff for the Dartmouth College Republicans, characterization of the law as “confusing” is merely a way to encourage more students to register. He and the rest of the Dartmouth College Republicans oppose the ability of students who grew up elsewhere to vote in New Hampshire because they say it unfairly brings more Democratic votes into a pivotal state.
“I would implore them to stop saying (HB 1264) is ‘confusing,’ ” Rauda said, calling the word choice a “ploy” to boost voter registration.
“It’s always followed by ‘You can register here.’ I think it’s a sham,” Rauda said.
Despite the controversy surrounding the law, there’s already excitement among students on campus about voting and about the New Hampshire primary in February, according to Rauda.
Anna Merriman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3216.