Proposed bill would bar students from voting in college towns

On January 28, 2011

A bill introduced in the New Hampshire House of Representatives earlier this month would bar college students from voting in their college towns unless they resided there before enrolling.

House Bill 176, which was introduced by Rep. Gregory Sorg (R- Grafton County) would amend RSA 654-2 to include a new section entitled "Voters Attending Institutions of Learning."

The section would require that "the domicile for voting purposes" of a college student would be the town or city "in which such person had his or her domicile immediately prior to matriculation … even though his or her intent to return thereto is uncertain."

Currently, students are able to choose their hometown or their college town as their domicile.

"The reasoning behind this bill is that issues differ by state," Michael Weeden (R-Strafford), a UNH sophomore, said. "Many college students are more knowledgeable of the issues where they are a domicile, rather then where they attend college."

The proposal took a controversial turn following comments made by Speaker of the House William O'Brien (R-Hillsborough) to a group of conservative activists.

According to the New Hampshire Union Leader, O'Brien told the group that college students registering to vote on Election Day "are basically doing what I did when I was a kid and foolish, voting as a liberal."

"I look at towns like Plymouth and Keene and Hanover, and particularly Plymouth," O'Brien said. "They've lost the ability to govern themselves."

O'Brien and Sorg did not respond to requests for comment.

Weeden distanced himself from O'Brien's remarks.

"My support of this bill is not based on voting tendencies of college students," he said. "I want to ensure that a student's vote counts where they will reside long term, not just where they reside for the semester."

Durham resident Rep. Judith Spang (D-Strafford) put her position much more simply in an e-mail exchange on Wednesday.

"I think this bill is an insult to democracy," she said.

Durham resident Rep. Timothy Horrigan (D-Strafford) said that the bill was an attempt by House Republicans to make it harder for people to vote.

"It's a bad idea to get people out of the habit of voting," Horrigan said. "People already think it's a difficult process."

Weeden disagreed with the idea that the bill would have that effect.

"Any student who takes their right to vote seriously will be willing to take their time to vote via absentee ballot," he said.

O'Brien and other supporters have classified the bill's attempt to redefine "domicile" as part of their plans to stem voting fraud in the state.

"I believe that both parties should be aware that voter fraud exists and that efforts are needed to prevent voting fraud in the state," Weeden said. "The citizens of New Hampshire deserve accurate election results."

Horrigan said there has been no substantial evidence of voting fraud in the state.

"[The bill] is directed toward students," he said. "The speaker said he didn't like the way that students voted."

Horrigan believes that the bill violates the federal Voting Rights Act, as well as the federal and state constitution.

One court ruling that opponents of the legislation cite is 1972's "Newburger vs. Peterson," which ruled "that you can't require that there be an intent to stay in a state, either permanently or indefinitely."

Although the bill is controversial, both sides acknowledge that it has a chance of passing, given that Republicans control 297 of 400 seats in the House.

"I believe that HB 176 will pass the legislature," Weeden said.

Horrigan said the House "may very well pass it," but that the Senate is "much more pragmatic," and that he expected a court challenge. He also said that Republican candidates visiting the state for the upcoming presidential primaries wouldn't want to find themselves in the midst of a voting rights controversy.

Horrigan believes that there are numerous holes in the bill, which he called a "throwback to the disenfranchisement of the 1950's and 60's," that would not stand up in court.

"The way it's written is somewhat unenforceable," he said. "They can't prove if you're a student or not if you live off-campus.

"[Students are] as much a part of the community as anyone else," Horrigan added.

UNH College Republicans President Robert Johnson took a different approach, saying that the bill is constitutional, but that legislators should focus on the economy and the budget.

"New Hampshire reserves the right to define what constitutes a New Hampshire resident, and thus who votes in New Hampshire," Johnson said. "With that said, I do not think that this is an appropriate time to work on this issue."

Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig said that he became aware of the proposed legislation last week, and that the Town Council did not get a chance to discuss the measure at its Monday on meeting.

"The council has had no conversation on it and Durham has no position on it," he said in a phone interview yesterday.

However, his description of town government did not suggest a town unable to govern itself, as O'Brien said. Of the town's 22 boards and committees, UNH undergraduate students hold positions on only one of them; two students are on the town's Rental Housing Commission.    

He said that students are primarily interested in voting in federal elections.

"There is usually very little interest in voting in the state-wide elections," Johnson said. "There is hardly any involvement in the local elections."

Selig said that some Durham residents have expressed fears of students "overwhelming the polls and sweeping in a slate of their own candidates," but that "in actual practice, that has not come to pass."

HB 176 would also pertain to federal employees and members of the armed services who are stationed in the state. Such individuals would similarly be unable to change their domicile, but instead "shall be presumed to have departed from such other place for a temporary purpose with the intention of returning."

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