The next statewide elections are more than a year away, but, already, the battle over how New Hampshire voters cast their ballots is well underway.
This week will see a court hearing for two lawsuits challenging a controversial new voting law, which just went into effect on Friday. That law, in turn, could have its first test tomorrow in Laconia, where voters head to the polls for a House special election.
Then there’s the Trump administration’s voting commission, which meets tomorrow at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and, since its inception, has fanned competing choruses about voter fraud and voter suppression.
All of this happens against the backdrop of New Hampshire’s role as a new kind of political battleground — the fight over who gets to vote, and how.
To some extent, these kinds of debates are nothing new. New Hampshire, with its outsized role in as the first-in-the-nation primary and its swing state status, has seen any number of battles over voting laws: college students’ eligibility, photo ID, residency requirements, the list goes on.
But something’s different, lately. Just ask the guy who’s been in the middle of these debates for the last forty years: New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner.
“I mean, you didn’t get the level of anxiety that’s created,” Gardner said. “And the groups, people being paid to come here, to take a certain position.”
What Gardner’s talking about is the way that election law is increasingly becoming just another partisan political issue – and one that comes with its own competing set of outside political groups, zeroing in on New Hampshire as a battleground for swaying public opinion.
Think of the door-knocking and phone calls and political mail you’re used to seeing from organizations pushing issues like tax reform or clean energy.
Expect to see more of that in the next year . But now, it's also coming from groups pushing to expand or restrict voting rights.
One example: Let America Vote, a progressive campaign to expand voting access, led by Former Missouri Secretary of State (and rumored 2020 presidential contender) Jason Kander. You might recall seeing the group’s digital ads or advocacy earlier this year during the debate over SB3, a new voting law adding stricter eligibility requirements and penalties, or during a few recent legislative special elections.
Next year, the group plans to open field offices in five new states – including New Hampshire.
“The New Hampshire Republicans passed one of the most devious voter suppression bills in the country last fall,” Kander told NHPR recently. “It’s clear that they think stripping away voting rights comes without consequences, so we’re launching a field operation to make them answer for their bad choices.”
Leading up to the next round of statewide elections in 2018, Kander says the group will be canvassing and campaigning in local races up and down the ballot.
“We’re in the process of picking which legislative races we’re targeting, but we’ll base those decisions on which politicians have failed to stand up to voting rights and which seats we can flip,” Kander told NHPR in an interview. “And then we’ll also be working to defeat Governor Sununu.”
Meanwhile, another group led by a former Trump campaign staffer plans to make “ballot box integrity” and “forensic voter fraud investigations” part of its agenda when it sets up shop in New Hampshire in 2018.
Matt Braynard says Look Ahead America plans to focus primarily on rallying rural voters concerned about immigration, terrorism and similar issues. But they also plan to deploy poll-watchers to monitor voting processes on Election Day — something already done routinely by members of both political parties, as well as attorneys and other nonpartisan officials.
“As an organization, we think it’s extremely important that there is confidence in these elections. And that’s something we’d be able to provide, or if we identify problems, we’ll raise a flag,” Braynard told NHPR.
Braynard said the group also has access to vast databases of voter information that might serve as a jumping off point for independent investigations.
“We may be able to detect if a ballot’s been cast for somebody who either is dead, according to the death files from Social Security or has moved out of the state years and years ago,” Braynard said. “So if folks like that show up as having voted, that’s an indication, well, maybe we should follow up.”
That outside political groups are making New Hampshire’s electoral process itself into a campaign issue is, in some ways, a sign of the times.
Over and over again in the last year, New Hampshire’s been at the center of national news cycles because either President Trump or one of his allies repeated unfounded claims that widespread voter fraud took place here.
A presidential commission set up to investigate such claims will meet in New Hampshire on Tuesday. Both the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonpartisan group that’s been at the forefront of voting rights battles in New Hampshire for years, and other more overtly political allies are planning to protest outside.
Andy Smith, a University of New Hampshire professor who’s set to speak to the Trump commission when it’s in town, says there’s a more practical explanation for why both parties are eager to turn the electoral process into a campaign issue.
“It’s a great way to raise money, basically,” Smith said. “You can get your supporters all worked up either by saying either your votes are being taken away, people are trying to prevent you from voting. Or, the flip side is, that the elections are rigged because all of these illegal people are voting.”
In other words: Telling your base that there are problems at the polls is also another strategy to motivate them to show up there in the first place.