With Dozens of N.H. Election Law Bills on Deck, Here Are Five Issues to Watch in 2017

Dec 28, 2016

From changes in voting registration to changes to party primaries or the Electoral College, New Hampshire lawmakers are preparing a slew of bills aimed at reforming the state’s elections.

In all, at least 40 bills aimed at tinkering with the state’s election laws are in the works for 2017.

At least fifteen of those bills come from just one lawmaker, Representative David Bates, a Republican from Windham who has made revising the state’s voting rules a top focus in recent terms.

On one side of the aisle, Bates and other Republicans have their eyes on tightening up the rules around who can vote here, but there are lots of different, sometimes diverging, paths on what that would look like.

“My two priorities are making sure, first of all, that only residents of New Hampshire vote in our elections here,” Bates says. “My other priority would be to ensure that everybody to registers and who votes in New Hampshire is required to show proof of their qualifications.”

New Hampshire election officials have said there's no evidence to back up claims that large groups of people are voting illegally here, but Republicans pushing changes to the rules have argued the state's existing laws allow for too much flexibility in what qualifies someone to vote here legally in the first place.

On the other side, Democrats are focusing on a different set of changes to the state’s voting systems, like introducing bills aimed at updating the technology used for different parts of the voting process.

“Anything that we can do to make voting easier and registration easier and more accessible to more people who should vote, that’s what my goal is," says State Sen. Betty Laske, of Nashua, who's sponsoring a handful of voting-related bills. "Nothing more nefarious than that.” 

Here’s a rundown of some of the voting-related debates to keep an eye on at the Statehouse in the year ahead, in no particular order:

1. Defining “Domicile”

One of Bates’ bills would remove just four words from a state statute defining what it means to be a New Hampshire resident, so that it would no longer cover those who intend to remain in the state “for the indefinite future.”

That language, and the idea of what it means to be “domiciled” in New Hampshire versus a “resident” of New Hampshire, has been at the heart of a years-long debate over the state’s existing voter eligibility standards.

Some who want the laws to be stricter have argued that the existing language, combined with the state’s same-day voter registration rules, allows too much room for wrongful voting by people who have no intention of becoming long-term residents of the state. Others, however, have argued that adding more stringent requirements would risk disenfranchising otherwise valid voters.

Bates also plans to introduce other bills making changes to the state’s domicility and residency requirements, including one that would establish a clear definition for when someone officially loses their domicile in New Hampshire for the purposes of either voting or holding public office here. He’s also planning to introduce a bill to require ballot clerks to make a notation in the state’s voter database any time someone shows an out-of-state license as part of their proof of identity at the polls.

2. Eligibility for Out-of-State College Students

Another Republican lawmaker, Rep. Norman Silber of Gilford, is sponsoring one bill to specifically prevent out-of-state college students from voting in New Hampshire.

Right now, New Hampshire law specifically states: “A student of any institution of learning may lawfully claim domicile for voting purposes in the New Hampshire town or city in which he or she lives while attending such institution of learning,” as long as that student otherwise meets the requirements of establishing the state as their domicile for voting purposes.

Silber dismissed the idea that students who attend New Hampshire colleges from out-of-state may still be spending a majority of their year in the state while enrolled in school as a factor in weighing whether they should be allowed to vote here.

“Who has the greatest stake in what happens in New Hampshire? The people that have the greatest stake in New Hampshire are the people who’ve put down roots in New Hampshire,” Silber says. “They’ve bought a home or they’ve rented a home. They have joined a religious organization. They have registered their cars here. They have registered to vote here. They belong to organizations here. It’s not just a matter of going to school.”

Silber, who is originally from Florida, further added that he attended school as an out-of-state student in Louisiana but requested an absentee ballot to vote in his home state during college. He believes out-of-state students in New Hampshire today should do the same.

“If I decided that, after college, I wanted to stay in New Orleans and practice law there — instead of moving out — then,  OK, now I’ve become a permanent resident,” Silber said.

3. Same-Day Registration, Residency Requirements

Another bill from Silber would get rid of the state’s same-day voter registration – something Governor-Elect Chris Sununu has said he would support.

But other Republicans aren’t interested in getting rid of same-day registration, worrying it will cost too much and trigger too many other changes needed to comply with federal election mandates. (New Hampshire’s same-day voting law was enacted in 1994, under a Republican governor and legislature, as an alternative to following a federal law that requires states to offer voter registration at DMV locations.)

As an alternative to eliminating same-day registration, Rep. Kathleen Hoelzel of Raymond wants to reintroduce what’s become a perennial proposal to change the state’s election laws: A requirement that someone has to have lived in New Hampshire for a certain period of time before he or she can vote here. In the past, lawmakers have tried to pass 30- or 10-day requirements. Hoelzel says her bill would set the bar at 13 days.

Also operating under the assumption that same-day registration may stay intact, Rep. David Testerman, a Republican from Franklin, is proposing a bill to delay counting someone’s vote if he or she shows up without all of the required documentation to prove eligibility on Election Day.

Testerman says he wants to make it so that if someone doesn’t have the required documentation to prove eligibility when they come to register at the polls, they would vote using a provisional ballot and it wouldn’t be counted until they return at a later date with the required documentation.

4. Bringing Voting Technology into the 21st Century

One bill sponsored by State Sen. Bette Lasky of Nashua aims to roll out online voter registration in New Hampshire, a process already used by more than 30 other states.

Lasky also plans to reintroduce a bill to pilot new electronic pollbooks in a few communities, which would replace the stacks of paper checklist currently used to sign-in voters on Election Day. A similar proposal, which had the backing of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and town clerks across the state, fell short last year after being opposed by the Secretary of State.

Last session, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and clerks from communities across the state spoke out in favor of piloting an e-pollbook program in several communities during the state primary elections. They argued the technology could reduce long lines at the polls and cut down on the sometimes months-long process of updating the voter rolls that takes place after each election, but the Secretary of State’s office raised concerns about the reliability of the technology and the state’s ability to follow through on the pilot for September’s elections.

Since last year’s proposal failed, the Secretary of State’s office has organized a working group to discuss future e-pollbook proposals. But the office has also taken the unusual step of filing records requests with two city clerks who were vocal proponents of last year’s e-pollbook pilot, seeking more information about their conversations with lawmakers and advocacy organizations on the subject.

5. Reevaluating the Electoral College

There’s at least one proposal that would change what happens after all the votes are cast and counted:  Rep. Will Pearson, a Democrat from Keene, wants New Hampshire’s Electoral College votes to be awarded to the winner of the national popular vote in presidential elections.  

Eleven other states have taken similar steps as part of a movement called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

“Some people have even come to me with the argument that this is going to take away New Hampshire’s first in the nation primary,” Pearson said. “I just don’t see how that happens, especially considering the primary is a separate entity from the general election and it’s largely a party driven event.”

Pearson’s not the first to suggest that New Hampshire might want to reevaluate its approach to its electors in light of this year’s presidential election, in which President-Elect Donald Trump won the Electoral College (and therefore the presidency) but lost the national popular vote by almost 3 million

Former executive councilor Dudley Dudley, one of New Hampshire’s electors, floated the idea of reevaluating New Hampshire's approach to the Electoral College at this year’s meeting of the electors. At the time, Dudley also asked for Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s help offering advice on what that might mean for the state.

Whether it’s something New Hampshire lawmakers, not exactly known for being keen to follow the lead of other states, are eager to explore? We’ll find out in the months ahead.