A controversial new residency law in New Hampshire is creating confusion, and has led to charges of voter suppression and a legal challenge.
Backers say the law clarifies the state's voting rules and brings New Hampshire in line with all other states, but opponents say it is a blatant effort by Republicans to block college students who hail from other states from voting.
The complaints are coming from Democrats, including Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as she campaigns for the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
"I want to say something that I know is very controversial in some places in New Hampshire," Warren said at a rally at the University of New Hampshire last week. "I believe in the right of every American citizen to vote, including college students."
Warren was referring to House Bill 1264, which Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law in July 2018.
Essentially, the law changes the definition of a legal resident in New Hampshire, adding new requirements to vote. It means if a student drives, they'd need to get a New Hampshire license and register their car there. It used to be that students — or other part-time residents — could vote in New Hampshire if they were "domiciled" in the state, which is a fancy way of saying "lived there more than anywhere else."
The law is prompting concerns from college students across the state.
"I definitely think it's a concern because when you have any kind of voter suppression, which I think this is, you're not giving people their votes where they're being counted," said Tyler Pierce, a UNH student who attended the Warren rally.
"If you go to school in New Hampshire, I think you represent the state as much as anybody else who lives here," said Greta Swartz, another UNH student. "It's your home now, so I think it's important for people to vote where they are."
Both Pierce and Swartz are from New Hampshire, so the new law will not affect their voting status. But it could affect Maggie Flaherty, a junior at Dartmouth College who comes from California.
"Students who want to engage in their community in the democratic process should not be discouraged from doing so by lawmakers," said Flaherty, who's one of two Dartmouth students who are plaintiffs in a case filed by the ACLU that challenges the law as an illegal effort to suppress the student vote.
The ACLU says linking voting rights to residency requirements — like paying to register a car and a getting a state license — is like an unconstitutional poll tax.
Flaherty calls the law confusing, something that local election officials complain about as well. They say there has been a lack of guidance from the secretary of state's office about precisely what the new law requires.
"Students don't know if they can vote, or how to vote," Flaherty said. "So, the fact that this [law] has made voting confusing and difficult and hard is a barrier in and of itself."
But Rep. Barbara Griffin, a Republican from Goffstown who chaired the House Election Law Committee, says New Hampshire was the only state in the country that did not require voters to be legal residents, which she says led to confusion.
"New Hampshire has a pretty high seasonal population," she said, "and we have people who in the past have contacted our secretary of state's office and said, 'I heard you don't need to live in New Hampshire to vote there. How do I vote?' "
Griffin points out that the new law was supported by the state's longtime Democratic secretary of state, Bill Gardner. And Griffin says the law makes clear that only legal residents can vote, which she says is especially important in New Hampshire.
"Given our status as a swing state and that we have had historically some of the closest elections in the country — we had a Senate race decided by two votes — we think it's important to make sure that everybody's vote is counted the same and is counted correctly," Griffin said.
The Senate race she is referring to took place in 1975, when John Durkin beat Louis Wyman by just two votes in the closest U.S. Senate election ever. More recently, in 2016, Sen. Maggie Hassan, the Democratic incumbent, beat Republican Kelly Ayotte by just over 1,000 votes, while Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in New Hampshire by fewer than 3,000 votes.
So thousands of out-of-state college students, who usually lean Democratic, can sway a close election, which has long chafed New Hampshire Republicans.
Following the 2016 election, state Sen. Dan Innis, a Republican, said: "If you're from Boston and you're up here eight months out of the year ... you shouldn't be able to vote here." When lawmakers debated HB 1264 on the Senate floor, William Gannon, a Republican supporter of the measure, declared that out-of-state students don't have "skin in the game." The law passed mostly along party lines, and continues to be a source of bitter partisan bickering.
"There's nothing more fundamental to our democracy than the right of an individual to vote ... and what this law does is throw up an obstacle to that," said Renny Cushing, a Democratic state representative from Hampton and state co-chair of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.
He calls the new law "a setback for voting rights."
"There was a time in our country when we used to have poll taxes," Cushing said. "And finally the United States Supreme Court decided that such a fundamental right as the right to vote should not be conditioned upon someone's economic wealth or any other reasons, and that's what this attack on the franchise is doing."
Supporters of HB 1264 point out that it was reviewed and approved by the New Hampshire Supreme Court before Gov. Sununu signed it.
But now it's being challenged not only by the ACLU but by the New Hampshire Democratic Party as well. This week, the ACLU asked a federal court to block the law through the New Hampshire primary in early February.
Opponents say with a general election just a year away, there's a lot at stake in this case.
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This segment aired on November 8, 2019.