This week, in a victory for voting rights, Strafford County Superior Court Judge Brian Tucker struck down a 2012 New Hampshire law that added unnecessarily confusing language to the state’s voter registration form, requiring people to declare legal residence in order to register. The form read, “In declaring New Hampshire as my domicile, I am subject to the laws of the state of New Hampshire which apply to all residents, including laws requiring a driver to register a motor vehicle and apply for a New Hampshire’s driver’s license within 60 days of becoming a resident.” This language failed to distinguish properly between domicile and residence, intimidating possible New Hampshire voters, especially college students, thereby preventing them from registering in New Hampshire. The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union filed a petition on behalf of four out-of-state college students and the New Hampshire League of Women Voters against New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner in 2012, arguing that this language violated both the state and federal constitutions. Applying a strict scrutiny analysis, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that the language was “a confusing and unreasonable description of the law,” and “unduly restrictive,” to voters in New Hampshire. The language on the registration form incorrectly implied that residency and domicile are the same, and Judge Tucker in his order explained that a reasonable person would imply from the language that in registering to vote in New Hampshire she would also have to change her car registration or obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license.
The Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN) has been combatting this prohibitive voter registration language since it was introduced in legislation in 2012, alongside another bill that created a restrictive photo ID requirement. In 2012 FELN, along with other New Hampshire organizations, signed on to a letter addressed to the U.S. Department of Justice, urging the DOJ to investigate New Hampshire laws that were making it more difficult for college students and minorities to vote. The letter FELN signed on to described the law as, “retrogressive, discriminatory and will reduce minority voting strength across the state.” College students in New Hampshire are twice as likely to be minorities compared to the state’s general population. The New Hampshire constitution states that “all elections are to be free, and every inhabitant of the state of 18 years of age and upwards shall have an equal right to vote in any election.” The 2012 law that added residency requirements to state’s voter registration form was intimidating and discriminatory against minorities and college students in New Hampshire, and thus abridged their essential right to vote.
The language found on the New Hampshire voter registration form was an obvious attempt at voter intimidation. Not only did the language incorrectly convey the legal requirements of residency and domicile in relation to voting, New Hampshire politicians have publically spoken about keeping college students from the polls. When speaking in 2011 to a Tea Party group, New Hampshire State House Speaker William O’Brien called students “foolish,” and unlikely to vote intelligently. In 2012, former Representative Fran Wendelboe wrote that “one of [New Hampshire’s] biggest issues are college students who show up at the polls and vote.”
While literacy tests, poll taxes, and the Jim Crow laws of the past may be the first things to come to mind when hearing the phrase “voter intimidation,” the language on the New Hampshire voter registration form represented a written attempt at voter intimidation. Voter intimidation has taken many forms around the county in the past several years. In 2012, deceptive phone calls were made to voters in Florida, Virginia, and Indiana telling them they could vote by phone (which is not permissible in any state). Also in 2012, intimidating billboards reading “voter fraud is a felony punishable by up to three and a half years in jail and a $10,000 fine,” were placed in predominately African-American and blue-collar neighborhoods in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee. Complicated lists that accompany restrictive photo ID laws, proof of citizenship, and proof of residency requirements, and the laws themselves, confuse voters and make it harder, particularly for minorities and young voters, to get to the polls. Additionally, poll workers may not completely understand all of the specifics of photo ID laws, and which forms are acceptable. The average age of a poll worker is 72, making it unlikely that they are familiar with barriers unique to students. Voter intimidation is not a thing of the past, but fortunately, it was recognized and defeated in New Hampshire yesterday, with the court order striking down the threatening language that was part of the state’s voter registration form.