DURHAM, N.H. — Every presidential election season, candidates trek to New Hampshire and talk about New Hampshire things: the seriousness of its voters, the importance of its first-in-the-nation primary, the beauty of its landscape.
This cycle, White House hopeful Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has added a new talking point to her Granite State routine: Slamming a state voting law that GOP Governor Chris Sununu says levels the playing field for everyone who wants to vote in New Hampshire but that Democrats and voting rights advocates say will discourage out-of-state college students from casting ballots.
“I want to say something that I know is very controversial in some places in New Hampshire, like in the governor’s office — I believe in the right of every American citizen to vote, including college students,” Warren said at the top of her town hall event Wednesday on the University of New Hampshire, prompting cheers from the audience.
The New Hampshire Democratic Party and the American Civil Liberties Union are suing in federal court to overturn the 2018 law, alleging it amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax because it could force students who come from other states to pay for in-state driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations in order to vote — requirements that could cost them hundreds of dollars.
The state’s lawyers argue that registering to vote is free and the new law, which took effect in July, won’t change the voting process.
The legal and political battle is playing out ahead of an election in which analysts believe young voters could play a decisive role. In the 2018 midterm elections, college students turned out to vote at a rate more than double that of 2014, according to the Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education.
And exit polls showed that young voters were far more supportive of Democrats than they were four years earlier, too, said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.
“Young Americans, especially college students, are as politically engaged as I’ve seen them in 20 years,” he said.
Republicans in New Hampshire passed the new voting law following the 2016 election in which Hillary Clinton beat Trump by fewer than 3,000 votes – or “the number of students living in a few dorms here,” Evan Martin, a local Warren organizer told the crowd at the town hall event, urging students to get involved in her campaign.
Several out-of-state UNH students interviewed by the Globe said they wanted to vote in New Hampshire because they believe their vote will make more of a difference here than if they voted in the state they lived in before enrolling at UNH. “I’m from Illinois, and I know it’s probably not going to change from a Democratic state, so I feel like my vote has more of a say here, now that it’s a swing state,” said Julia Denoia, who attended the Warren event.
The 18-year-old freshman said she hasn’t registered to vote yet, but she plans to before the primary. She said she hadn’t heard much about the new law. “I think, as of now, I can show mail and prove that I’m a student here and vote,” she said.
Daniel Safsel, a 21-year-old senior from New York, has already voted once since coming to UNH and has a 12-month apartment lease here. He said he wasn’t worried about his residency status, despite having a New York driver’s license. But he said the confusion around it “might deter the vote of students who potentially don’t understand the new law in full.”
Backed by Republicans when they controlled the state Legislature, the 2018 law known as House Bill 1264 tightened residency requirements for students who hail from other states.
For years, college students hailing from other states have been able to vote in New Hampshire so long as they were “domiciled” there — a term distinct from residency under state law that indicated they lived in the state and intended to stay “for the indefinite future.”
The new voting law sought to eliminate the distinction.
Supporters say the law ensures the integrity of the state’s electoral process and collapses the previous two-tier system under which college students didn’t have to meet the same legal standard as other voters.
“House Bill 1264 restores equality and fairness to our elections,” New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican, said in a statement to the Globe. “Every person who votes in New Hampshire will be treated the same, and these laws merely bring New Hampshire’s voting laws in line with all 49 other states. This is the essence of an equal right to vote.”
Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt on Twitter accused Warren of making “baseless” and “blatantly hypocritical” attacks. Massachusetts “places higher barriers to voting than NH ever has, or ever will. In MA you must be a resident to vote in their elections. The same is now true in New Hampshire.”
The new law also has led to widespread confusion and contradictory instructions from state officials, Democrats and voting advocates say, with various town and state government agencies unable to clearly explain what the law actually requires a student who comes from another state to do to establish residency.
That confusion itself can dissuade students from voting, critics of the law say. The ACLU is arguing that the judge should freeze the voting law until at least after the presidential primary in February.
Warren’s New Hampshire state director, Elizabeth Wester, submitted an affidavit earlier this month in support of that argument.
Wester wrote that the campaign has been unable to use educational materials it prepared on how supporters can register to vote in New Hampshire because of still-unanswered questions about how the law works. “To date we have been unable to find any clarification from any state officials and are thus unable to adequately advise students on the ramifications of a decision to register to vote in NH,” she said.
Another affidavit, submitted by the state director for America Votes, a non-partisan voting rights organization, described individual examples of students trying to get clarity from state officials on the law, only to find themselves in a nightmarish loop of bureaucratic confusion.
Warren isn’t the only 2020 Democratic contender taking aim at the law while stumping around the state.
In April, 18 Democrats running in the presidential primary, including Warren, signed on to a letter authored by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, denouncing the law. Other signatories included former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Kamala Harris of California, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
Buttigieg blasted the New Hampshire voting law during an Oct. 25 event in New London, N.H. “What you see happening with the effort to suppress the student vote here in New Hampshire is really a strike against democracy,” he said.