Confusion over a new law could threaten young voter turnout in New Hampshire

There's "mass disinformation" in the first-in-the-nation 2020 primary state, one Dartmouth College student said.

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By Jane C. Timm

HANOVER, N.H. — A new voting law in New Hampshire is causing confusion among college students, threatening to dampen turnout among a key Democratic voting bloc in a state where the margins of victory in 2020 could be razor-thin.

The law, known as House Bill 1264, requires students and other transient people to pay New Hampshire motor vehicle licensing and registration fees if they vote and drive there, creating new logistical and financial hurdles in a state where car registration can cost hundreds of dollars.

It was one of two bills aimed at tightening access to the ballot box passed by the state's GOP-controlled Legislature in the wake of the 2016 election, in which Donald Trump lost New Hampshire by less than 3,000 votes and Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte lost her Senate seat by an even smaller margin.

Republicans said the law, signed by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu in July 2018, was necessary to make elections fair and fight claims, which are still unproven, of significant voter fraud. But while students expressed frustrations over trips to the Division of Motor Vehicles and the expense (driver's licenses can cost $50 and up, and car registrations are easily $300), they say the biggest problem with HB 1264 is the bureaucratic maze it's created, leaving younger voters uncertain of their voting rights and their legal requirements.

“Students can still vote in New Hampshire, the problem is that all the rhetoric surrounding the bill has caused mass disinformation,” said Michael Parsons, the president of the New Hampshire College Democrats and the executive director of the Dartmouth Democrats.

After HB 1264 went into effect in July 2019, state officials declined to clarify how it would be enforced and implemented. Noone seemed to be able to answer the question of whether students would need a New Hampshire driver's license to register to vote. Two months later, in September, the state’s attorney general offered the first public guidance on the law, telling people to call their local DMV if they had questions about their voting rights.

In December, state officials finally offered the clearest guidance to date with a 19-page document including five pages of questions and answers: If out-of-state students registered to vote and planned to drive, they would also have to register their cars and update their driver’s licenses within 60 days. But for a student without a car, the question remains: what makes someone a driver?

“This law was an attempt to make voting more confusing and expensive and burdensome,” Henry Klementowicz, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said. “Every single voter in New Hampshire needs to know that if you are eligible to vote — if you are a citizen and domiciled and over 18 — you do have the right to vote.”

At a Dartmouth College Democrats meeting of more than 100 politically active students Monday night, many said they were not clear on the law.

“People are aware that there’s something going on, but if they don’t know all the details, then they’re going to take it at face value and they’re going to think, 'Yeah, I can’t vote,'” Arianna Khan, 20, told NBC News.

Khan organizes campus tabling, where students hand out materials and talk to fellow students. The group's members regularly spend a combined 20 hours a week encouraging voter registration and explaining the implications of HB 1264 to the school’s approximately 6,500 students.

“I want to follow the law — I think everyone wants to follow the law. I have tried to figure it out, but if I, say, want to borrow my friend’s car to drive a group of friends out to brunch, does that make me a driver in New Hampshire?” Dartmouth student Gigi Gunderson, 21, said at the meeting.

Gunderson voted in 2018 and intends to vote in 2020, but since she doesn’t regularly drive in the state, she hasn’t updated her Minnesota driver’s license.

Student volunteers man the tables at a campaign event for Bernie Sanders on Sept. 29, 2019, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.Cheryl Senter / AP file

One student said she was forgoing renting vehicles through Zipcar, a car-sharing service, to go on winter grocery runs for fear of running afoul of the law.

Another student said he thought the law had been overturned, which isn't the case. After Democrats retook control of the state Legislature in 2018's November midterm elections, lawmakers voted to repeal HB 1264, as well as a 2017 law that made registering to vote in the month before an election more complicated. Sununu vetoed both.

A legal battle to block the law, meanwhile, is ongoing. The ACLU of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Democratic Party sued the state in early 2019, calling the law a "poll tax." Klementowicz, who is one of the attorneys arguing the case, said he hopes it will be decided before the general election in November.

More than one Democratic presidential campaign has taken notice of New Hampshire's voting rights landscape. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts brought up the law while campaigning in Hanover earlier this month ahead of the state's Democratic primary Feb. 11.

“The Republicans don’t want to see students vote, and I assume that’s because they think that a majority of those students are not likely to embrace the Republican agenda,” Warren said, according to the local newspaper Valley News.

Shannon Jackson, the New Hampshire state director for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign, said it was a “new obstacle” in field organizing in the state this year.

“It’s the confusion that is disturbing,” said Betsy McClain, the town clerk and the director of administrative services in Hanover, where Dartmouth is located. “We can clarify it for the people who present themselves, but maybe this confusion has dissuaded people.”

McClain said she does not tell people about HB 1264 unless they ask, because she fears suppressing voters. If they ask, she’ll give voters the same question-and-answer document she got from the state in December, even though it doesn't spell out what makes someone a driver in the state.

“I know how I would do it. I know how I would maybe counsel my children to do it,” she said. “But I’m not in the position to counsel individual voters.”