Secretary of State William Gardner testifes at the State House, on March 7, 2017

Mar 7, 2017 9:23 PM

Statehouse showdown over GOP bill to tighten NH voting laws in the wake of fraud claims


CONCORD – With the issue of voter fraud in the spotlight, it was no surprise that Tuesday’s public hearing of a much anticipated state Senate bill to tighten New Hampshire’s election laws was moved from a smaller hearing room to Representatives Hall, to accommodate the large crowd that showed up.

Supporters of the GOP backed bill sponsored by state Sen. Regina Birdsell, of Hampstead, say it will target existing voter fraud by making sure that people who are voting in New Hampshire actually live in the state. Many Granite State Republicans have argued for years that the state’s same-day registration laws allows out-of-state-voters to take part in what’s called “drive-by” voting.

Opponents of the measure argue it’s an attempt to limit voter participation. Many of the people who testified on the bill, formally known as SB3, claimed the measure aimed to intimidate voters.

But New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner supported the measure, which is a replace-all amendment to an existing placeholder bill. The longest-serving secretary of state in the country said he backed the measure because “you have to try to find the best way to balance that you want as many people as possible to be able to vote, and on the other hand, you want a process that a lot of people trust and believe is working, is right and technically secure.”

“We’re not denying anyone who shows up at the polls to be able to vote,” added Gardner, a Democrat. “We’re just saying that we want to be able to say that everyone knows that those votes are valid and true. And that helps the turnout, and that’s been our tradition here.”

Assistant Secretary of State Dave Scanlan, a Republican, also backed the measure.

Birdsell, the Hampstead Republican who authored the bill and is chair of the Election Law Committee, which held the hearing on the bill, said her measure “basically says that you can’t just have it in your head that you are domiciled in the state for the purpose of voting. It has to be coupled with a verifiable act or acts carried out with that intent.”

What the bill would do

Provisions in Birdsell’s amendment require that anyone who registers to vote either prior to or within 30 days of an election, or on Election Day itself thanks to the state's same-day registration law, present definitive proof that they reside in the Granite State.

“Regardless of whether you register in advance of 30 days or within 30 days or same day, all the same documents are going to be required,” Birdsell told NH1 News last week.

People who fail to provide such identification could still vote, but would be required to provide proof of residency to city and town clerks within 10 days of voting, or 30 days for towns where offices are only open once a week.

That’s a quicker time period requirement than current election law dictates. Provisions in her bill allow town clerks, the Secretary of State’s office, and even police on a routine patrol to pay a home visit to obtain a voter’s proof of residency.

That provision was targeted by many opponents of the bill. The American Civil Liberties Union, the New Hampshire Municipal Association and several residents raised alarms over the police verification provision. Others who oppose the measure argued the bill makes the voter registration form so long that local officials and voters may not fully understand it.

The legal director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union said that if a voter fails to present documentation verifying residency, if the bill became law that person would have their names removed from their local checklist. And Gilles Bissonnette added the measure would “effectively criminalize voters” by pointing out they would face fines up to $5,000 for voting wrongfully.

The committee is expected to approve the bill next week, in a 3-2 party line vote.

Birdsell told NH1 News last week that the top two Republicans in the chamber, Senate President Chuck Morse of Salem and Majority Leader Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro are supportive of the bill, adding “I’m pretty confident that it will be getting through the Senate and making it to the House.”

The GOP holds a 14-10 majority in the state Senate. Even though the Republicans hold the majority in the House of Representatives, the bill could face a slew of amendments in the chamber, there there’s no guarantees it could pass.

But Birdsell’s measure is seen by many as the legislation that has the best chance of making it to the Corner Office. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has been very supportive of tightening up the state’s election laws.

A couple of times since the November election President Donald Trump has made unsubstantiated claims that thousands of people bused in from Massachusetts voted illegally in the Granite State in last year’s election.

Trump lost the fight for the Granite State’s four electoral votes by just under 3,000 votes to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Just days before the November election, then-GOP gubernatorial nominee Sununu told conservative radio host Howie Carr “there’s no doubt there’s election fraud here and they’re kind of – I don’t want to use rigged, that’s like the word you’re not supposed to use anymore – but they have really gamed the system in their advantage.”

But three weeks after the election, Sununu, who beat Democratic gubernatorial nominee Colin Van Ostern by around 17,000 votes, said he didn’t believe there was voter fraud. And in an interview with NH1 News in December, he said “we don’t have fraud in this state but we do have laws that are a little bit loose. There’s a lot of gray area. A lot of room for interpretation about who’s a resident.”

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