N.H. students oppose voting restrictions

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CONCORD, N.H. -- College students hoping to vote in New Hampshire would face the most restrictive registration law in the country if lawmakers pass a bill targeting both students and members of the military, according to a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on voting access and election law.

Republican Rep. Gregory Sorg of Easton has proposed barring students from voting in college towns unless they lived there before enrolling. The bill also specifies that member of the military stationed in New Hampshire should continue to be residents of their previous states for voting purposes.

The latter has not caused much of a stir -- the state has no residential military bases. But the provision targeting students has prompted complaints from Democrats and from students of all political leanings. New Hampshire currently is among 24 states with "student-friendly" laws but would be in a class by itself if the bill passes, said Lee Rowland, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

The center, which promotes the idea that students should be able to choose whether to vote in their hometowns or college towns, color-codes states based on the restrictions in their voter registration laws. About half the states are "green," to denote places where students can easily choose. A similar number are "yellow" because there are some restrictions that might make it difficult for students to vote on campus. Just two are "red": Idaho, where students must demonstrate an intention to make the state their permanent home, and Tennessee, where students with uncertain plans after graduation may not be eligible to register to vote.

"Even the ones we place in the ‘red’ category are not places that do what this New Hampshire bill would do," Rowland said. "There’s no doubt that passage of this bill would make New Hampshire an outlier in terms of explicitly singling out military members and students. .There is no law on the books that does that as blatantly as this bill would do."

The bill’s sponsor could not be reached for comment Monday.

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House Speaker Bill O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, hasn’t formally taken a position on the bill but says he worries that the state, with its lax definition of residency and same-day voter registration, is creating an environment in which people could claim residency in multiple locations.

"We encourage all individuals, regardless of age, to be part of the political process," he said. "However, any one person should only be able to claim residency in one location. That’s common sense."

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O’Brien said the bill does not target any particular party or ideology. But in remarks to a conservative group in Rochester last month, he complained about the high number of same-day registrations in Plymouth, home to Plymouth State University.

"They are kids voting liberal, voting their feelings, with no life experience," he said, according to Foster’s Daily Democrat.

Students at Dartmouth College have been circulating a petition calling on lawmakers to reject the bill, saying it deliberately strips students and service members of their equal right to vote.

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"When students and members of the Unites States Armed Forces come to New Hampshire to live, study, and work, they become part of the community. They help drive their communities’ economy; they pay New Hampshire taxes, and they contribute to civic life. There is nothing to justify the government depriving them of their right to vote," students wrote in the petition. "In America, the government does not choose the voters; the voters choose the government."

Keene State College students plan to discuss the bill at an assembly Tuesday night. A resolution denouncing the measure is set to go before the Plymouth State University Student Senate in the next week, and the University of New Hampshire Student Senate passed its own resolution Sunday night.

Jeff St. Cyr, speaker of the UNH Student Senate, said he opposes the bill, even though it doesn’t affect him: He votes in his hometown of Alton, about 35 miles from the Durham campus. Lawmakers should not make that choice for him, he said.

"Certainly not every student has the ability to go back home and vote in person. And other states have different laws about absentee ballots," he said. "A student’s ability to participate in a public election should not be limited because of the way he or she may vote in that election."

Students from several colleges are expected to testify when the bill has a public hearing in Concord on Feb. 24.


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