New Hampshire students challenge voter residency law in court

Published: Nov. 27, 2019 at 6:36 PM EST
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Out-of-state college students in New Hampshire aren't allowed to vote there unless they become full-time residents. A new lawsuit claims that's illegal and it's becoming a key talking point as presidential candidates canvass the state.

For years, college-aged voters have been called apathetic or unreliable when it comes to turning up at the polls. But the 2018 midterm elections changed some of that perspective. Young people, including those in college, voted in historic numbers.

"I think we've seen young people in my generation really start to become more politically engaged in these past several years and really again want to engage," said Maggie Flaherty, a junior at Dartmouth College.

New Hampshire has the highest per capita rate of college students in the country.

Flaherty says she and many of her friends are eager to vote in 2020 but she fears a controversial state law will discourage other students from getting to the polls.

"It's not that they're taking away our right to vote, it's that they're making it more difficult and confusing for us to vote," she said.

It's called HB 1264. It's a Republican-backed law that changed the definition of residency and automatically makes anyone who registers to vote a resident of New Hampshire.

Critics of the law say it requires out-of-state students who drive to pay fees for new state driver's licenses and car registrations just so they can vote.

Flaherty is one of two Dartmouth students represented by the ACLU who filed suit against state officials, calling the law unconstitutional.

"We believe these people were targeted with this law to put these burdens and confusion on them, to discourage them from voting," said Henry Klementowicz of the ACLU.

Those who support HB 1264 say it is not an election law.

"The argument that this is an attempt at voter suppression by the state is an unfair argument, and it's an incorrect argument," New Hampshire Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said.

Regardless, the law is already having a chilling effect.

Eliza Galliant and Miles Brown run campus voter registration drives at Dartmouth.

Reporter: What are some of the things your peers are saying?

Eliza Galliant: They're saying, 'Oh, I don't think I can vote in New Hampshire.'

Miles Brown: I think they're definitely trying to take advantage of college-age students, who, if they have to put in a ton of effort to figure out how to vote, will be less likely to.

Pollsters are getting an earful from students not just in New Hampshire but from across the country.

"They're concerned about access to our democracy," said John Della Volpe of the Harvard Institute of Politics.

Other states-- Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin-- with varying laws also face similar claims of trying to suppress the youth vote.

College-aged voters, 18-24-year-olds, historically lean Democrat. So it's no surprise Democratic lawmakers are speaking out about what they say are efforts to suppress those votes.

"I don't think that it's a secret that the Republican Party has been engaged in very questionable behavior when it comes to voter suppression," said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York.

"What you see happening with the effort to suppress the student vote here in New Hampshire is really a strike against democracy," said Mayor Pete Buttigieg, D-Presidential Candidate.

Flaherty says the lawsuit is one way to strike back.

"Hopefully, there'll be some clarity soon and hopefully there'll be answers soon," she said. "But right now, we're in the fight."