N.H. ACLU: Bill Would 'Effectively Criminalize' Legitimate New Hampshire Voters

Apr 4, 2017

New Hampshire House lawmakers are set to consider a Republican bill that would add new requirements for proving voter eligibility.

The measure, SB 3, cleared the state Senate last week along party lines.

The bill would require those registering close to an election to provide additional documentation, tightening the definition of domicile for voting purposes.

One opponent of that bill is Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the New Hampshire ACLU. He wrote in a recent editorial that the measure would "effectively criminalize legitimate voters."

He spoke to NHPR’s Morning Edition.

Sponsor Regina Birdsell, the bill’s prime sponsor, says no one who lives here will be denied the right to vote. Do you not agree?

We disagree with that fundamentally. When you look at SB3, here’s what it does: when you decide to exercise your constitutional right to vote in the place where you live but you don’t have the required documentation, you can vote, but you’re deemed to have committed an offense because you can’t produce those documents because you don’t have them within 10 or 30 days of the election. We think the obvious result of those provisions of the bill is that these voters will simply not vote to avoid the prospect of punishment. That is our real concern and why we think this effectively would have a disenfranchising effect. 

You say this would “criminalize" voters. Do you believe there could be criminal prosecution here of certain individuals?

I don’t think this is political hyperbole. When you look at page 13 of the bill, there’s been new language added now to the definition of wrongful voting and voter fraud, which is a criminal statute in our RSAs. Under this bill, wrongful voting and voter fraud is now considered to have occurred simply when a person “registers to vote on election day using an affidavit to satisfy proof of being qualified, but who fails to provide those documents after the particular election.” So you’re constitutionally entitled to vote, you live in New Hampshire, you call it home, you voted, but you don’t have those documents for various reasons, you’re now effectively criminalized under this new provision. And when you look at the particular statutes being amended, it could potentially subject you to a penalty of up to $5,000. This isn’t hyperbole, this is real.

Assuming that voters going to the polls cannot produce these documents, I would imagine supporters would say that’s evidence that it’s working?

When you look at the particular statutes being amended, it could potentially subject you to a penalty of up to $5,000. This isn't hyperbole, this is real.

  No, that’s evidence that you don’t have the documents. It’s not evidence that you’re not domiciled in New Hampshire. That to me is really the fundamental problem with this law. There are multiple classes of voters in New Hampshire who this would impact. It would particularly impact low-income folks, college students, and other people who are more transient who move often. That would include moving in the weeks before an election. Many of these voters are not going to have documentary proof of their domicile because they relocated shortly before an election. They’re not necessarily going to have a written lease. They may have a handshake lease. They may not have a utility bill. They may not have obtained a driver’s license at their new address. They’re not fraudulent, but they will not have those documents. So they’re squarely at issue in this particular bill and would be impacted.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner supports this bill, and argues there needs to be a balance between ensuring people can vote and making sure people trust the system.

Do you agree there needs to be that balance?

I think what the Secretary of State is saying as well as the sponsors is that this is needed not because there is widespread voter fraud in this state – most folks agree there isn’t widespread voter fraud in this state – but it’s necessary to deal with a “perception” of voter fraud. But as one senator said on the floor last week in talking about this bill, we should be legislating based on actual problems, not perception.

Are there any changes to current voting laws you could support?

Absolutely, and in fact, there’s a bill that’s currently going through the legislature right now that we do support, SB 197, which would provide additional resources to the attorney general’s office to not only enforce our election laws but enforce our campaign finance laws, as well as our voting laws. Right now in the New Hampshire attorney general’s office, there is only a part-time attorney that investigates the issues and prosecutes these issues. They need more resources.