Monday October 1, 2012

PLYMOUTH, N.H. -- Making her pitch at Plymouth State University, Megan Ogora’s tone was as sparkly as the glitter on the handmade "Students for Obama" sign stuck to her table at the student union building.

To each passer-by who mumbled something about being registered to vote in another state, she offered a quick argument for voting in New Hampshire instead -- state law allows it, and because New Hampshire is a swing state, votes cast by students here may have more of an impact.

"Because you are here, your vote counts six times as much," Ogora, who is from Lebanon, N.H., told several fellow students Thursday.

That’s exactly the attitude that has angered Republican House Speaker Bill O’Brien, who supports a new law that would essentially prohibit out-of-state students from voting in New Hampshire unless they become legal residents. A Strafford County Superior Court judge blocked implementation of the law last week, but the state has filed requests in two courts seeking to have it reinstated, leaving the matter unsettled just weeks before the Nov. 6 election.

O’Brien, who has asked to become a party in the case, said last week’s ruling created two classes of voters -- "all of us who reside in New Hampshire and those residents of other states who choose to vote here because we are a battleground state."

"The people of New Hampshire deserve not to have non-residents wandering around diluting their votes," he said Friday.

Students traditionally have been allowed to declare the state their domicile for voting purposes without holding legal residency, which involves an intent to stay for an extended period of time. A federal judge ruled in 1972 that the New Hampshire could not forbid out-of-state students from voting in New Hampshire even if they planned to leave after graduation, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled similarly seven years later.

But under a law passed over Gov. John Lynch’s veto this year, new voters would have been required to sign a statement saying they declare New Hampshire their domicile and are subject to laws that apply to all residents, including laws requiring drivers to register cars and get a New Hampshire driver’s license. The statement doesn’t specifically require students to be residents but makes them subject to hundreds of laws involving residency.

Hannah Sikand, a 19-year-old Plymouth State student from Connecticut, said she plans to vote for President Barack Obama in New Hampshire but doesn’t like the idea of changing her car registration or license.

"The biggest thing is, we need people to vote, and that is turning a lot of people away from it. That’s not cool," she said. "College students, being liberal or not, they still have ever legal right to vote. I don’t think it should matter where."

Just what kind of effect out-of-state college students have on elections is impossible to determine. But that impact likely is greater in New Hampshire than in other states due to the high percentage of out-of-state students attending college here.

In the fall of 2010, 47 percent of the first-time freshmen at New Hampshire colleges and universities were from outside the state, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Only three states had higher percentages: Vermont, Rhode Island and North Dakota. And among the states considered battlegrounds in November, the percent of out-of-state students are significantly lower, ranging from 11 percent in Michigan to 32 percent in Iowa.

In New Hampshire, an analysis of total enrollment at the state’s 17 residential colleges and universities shows just over 32,500 out-of-staters enrolled in fall 2011. That’s a sizable number in a small state (John Kerry beat George W. Bush by fewer than 10,000 votes in 2004), but no one knows how many of them will actually vote in New Hampshire. According to exit polls, 10 percent of 2008 voters in NH were 18-24, and they backed President Barack Obama 62 percent to 37 percent. 

This year, both campaigns are making a play for college students. Republican Mitt Romney has a Young Americans for Romney coalition that hosts nightly phone banks and weekly canvasses and individual leaders appointed on each campus. Unlike the Obama campaign, those efforts do not involve specifically urge out-of-state students to vote in New Hampshire instead of their home states.

"Our campaign is making heavy inroads into college campuses and recruiting volunteers to help spread Governor Romney’s message of lower taxes, less spending and increased economic opportunity across the Granite State," said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams, who declined to take a position on the New Hampshire law.

The Obama campaign also is not taking a position on the law, though its New Hampshire spokeswoman said the campaign in general supports making voting easier, not harder.

"We’ve never solved anything in America with less democracy, and we won’t now," Holly Shulman said.

Allie Bedell, chairwoman of the Keene State Republicans, said her group has no official position on the law, but her efforts have been focused on helping out-of-state students obtain absentee ballots. Personally, she believes students who live in campus dormitories should not register to vote in Keene.

"Students turn out at the polls and vote all the way down the ticket, whether they know the candidates after the "Presidential" line or not," said Bedell, who will vote by absentee ballot in her hometown of Londonderry.