Sunday, July 15, 2018

New Hampshire's voter residency bill is a step in the wrong direction

Civic engagement is one of the cornerstones of American democracy. The ability to influence our local, state, and federal leadership is one of the most fundamental elements of citizenship. Perhaps our greatest duty as a citizen is to take advantage of that ability and try to change the world around us. Many go even further and decide to seek public office, putting themselves in the position of representing their fellow citizens, an important responsibility. Some even decide to seek this responsibility at a young age, as is the case with two Dartmouth College students, who are seeking seats in the New Hampshire legislature. Both students, representing opposite ends of the political spectrum, see themselves as the best equipped to represent the interests of their college town to the legislature.

There is perhaps no greater state in the union for civic engagement than New Hampshire. With a 424 person legislature (the third largest legislative body in the English speaking world) and the continued use of town meetings as the predominant form of local government, New Hampshire encourages and almost requires participation in the public sphere. Given New Hampshire's rich tradition of citizen legislating, it's perplexing that Governor Chris Sununu signed House Bill 1264 into law.

New Hampshire has long allowed college students, who have not officially declared residency in the state, to vote in its elections. The importance of youth engagement has long been recognized as an important part of New Hampshire's tradition of citizen governance. In fact, prior to the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, New Hampshire was just one of five states that allowed people between the ages of 18 and 21 to vote. In regards to its modern laws, RSA 654:1 provides:
I. Every inhabitant of the state, having a single established domicile for voting purposes, being a citizen of the United States, of the age provided for in Article 11 of Part First of the Constitution of New Hampshire, shall have a right at any meeting or election, to vote in the town, ward, or unincorporated place in which he or she is domiciled. An inhabitant's domicile for voting purposes is that one place where a person, more than any other place, has established a physical presence and manifests an intent to maintain a single continuous presence for domestic, social, and civil purposes relevant to participating in democratic self-government. A person has the right to change domicile at any time, however a mere intention to change domicile in the future does not, of itself, terminate an established domicile before the person actually moves.  
I-a. 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 if such student's claim of domicile otherwise meets the requirements of RSA 654:1

House Bill 1264 effectively modifies the definition of "domicile" to be identical to its definition of "residence." To qualify as a resident and satisfy RSA 654:1, a person must take additional steps such as registering their motor vehicle and obtaining a driver's license in New Hampshire. This bill has not been without controversy. Governor Sununu had previously voiced his concern about the bill and only signed the bill after seeking an advisory opinion from the New Hampshire Supreme Court that affirmed that it does not violate the state and federal constitutions.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner argued in favor of the bill by saying, "[e]very other state requires people to be a resident (in order to vote), either in their statutes or in their constitutions[.]”. In an op-ed in the New Hampshire Union Leader, Gov. Sununu similarly argues that this bill brings New Hampshire in line with "virtually every other state." This is at least partially true. For example, HB 1264 bring NH's voting laws into line with neighboring Maine. When asked about student voting in November of 2016, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said that registering to vote "sets an expectation that you obtain a Maine driver’s license and do other public business as a Maine resident."

However, the notion that it brings New Hampshire in line with every other state is patently false.

For example, Iowa also contains a special carve out in state law for students. Iowa state law provides that:
A student who resides at or near the school the student attends, but who is also able to claim a residence at another location under the provisions of this section, may choose either location as the student’s residence for voter registration and voting purposes.
Further, Louisiana state law provides,
Any bona fide full-time student attending an institution of higher learning in this state may choose as his residence and may register to vote either at the place where he resides while attending the institution or at the place where he resides when not attending such institution, but he shall not have more than one residence at any one time for purposes of registering to vote. Such a student need not have an intent to reside indefinitely at the place where he offers to register.
Most states, such as neighboring Massachusetts, are ambiguous about the rights of out of state students to vote in their states. However hints can be found in other sources, such as the fact that people "physically present" in Massachusetts can be called for jury duty, without mention of residency in the Commonwealth. As the authors of this piece posit (see footnote 57), it is likely that this logic could be extended to say that such persons have a right to register to vote. Harvard University even provides a guide to help out of state students register to vote in Massachusetts.

I also would argue that signing this legislation is a betrayal of the idea of citizen legislating, an idea that New Hampshire has long prided itself on. Students in New Hampshire are undoubtedly a part of the communities in which they reside. They contribute to the local economy and are subject to the local laws and ordinances passed by their town's governments. By enacting a law that makes it more difficult for members of a community to participate in a governance structure that relies on heavy involvement from the local community, the New Hampshire government has opted to potentially disenfranchise thousands of people who make up the vibrant tapestry of its local community. It has also told students, many of who get involved in the political process, that their input is not needed or wanted.

By doing this, New Hampshire is risking alienating the very young people that it will need to grow and thrive in the future. According to a 2015 survey by the U.S. Census, New Hampshire's median age is 42.8, which ranks 2nd among the states.  Like many predominantly rural states, New Hampshire is getting older and seeing its young population leave. Allowing students to get involved in the political process could represent an opportunity for New Hampshire to reverse its fortunes and retain some of the young people who move there to seek an education. After all, getting involved in the political process and putting down social roots in a state also makes a person more likely to want to remain there after graduation. For example, if one of the Dartmouth students mentioned above wins their election, they are bound to remain in the state after graduation to finish their term. At the end of their term, they may run for re-election. Even if they do not, their experience in the legislature will have given them social and political roots that makes staying in NH a more likely possibility. A great illustration of this concepts comes from a March 2018 article in the New Hampshire Union Leader where University of New Hampshire senior Allison Bellucci, a Connecticut native, said, "I've been looking at options for staying in New Hampshire more than I ever thought before ... [w]hen I came here, I thought I'd be here four years and out, but honestly after this year of being so involved, particularly the politics, has made me want to stay more than I ever have." By working to exclude students from the voting process, they are also making it less likely that students will want to remain in New Hampshire after graduation, thus robbing the state of valuable assets that could seed its future growth.

Ultimately, college students are like any other citizen, they have a vested interest in their community and are subject to the laws and policies that are enacted within its borders. By enacting laws that erect barriers to participation in that process, New Hampshire is effectively disenfranchising large portions of entire communities and making the exercise of our greatest civic duty more difficult. I believe in removing barriers to voting, not erecting them. I also think that New Hampshire is wasting an opportunity to entice people to remain there and help grow their economy. As a state with a long history of citizen legislating and a plethora of opportunity for political involvement, New Hampshire is perhaps the last place that should be erecting barriers to voting.  This bill is a step backwards for New Hampshire and ultimately rural America. The open political involvement made possible by New Hampshire should be a model for our nation, they should not move backwards and doing so is a grave mistake.

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