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SB3 Hearing Draws Debate Over Student Participation, Message Sent to Young Voters

Casey McDermott, NHPR
A small crowd of SB3 opponents gathered outside of Representatives' Hall ahead of Tuesday's hearing.
Credit Casey McDermott, NHPR
Secretary of State Bill Gardner said the current debate over SB3 reminds him of the debate seen in 2012 over the state's voter ID law. While critics argued that law would dampen turnout, he says that hasn't borne out.

Members of the House Election Law Committee heard hours of testimony Tuesday on a voting bill that would impose new residency requirements on people registering to vote within 30 days of an election — with impassioned testimony from those on both sides of the debate.

Matthew Schmitz was one of dozens of people who showed up at the Statehouse to speak out against the legislation. Schmitz said he grew up in Bedford, went to college in Hanover and now lives in Concord — by choice, he says — doing work remotely for a high-tech company. He was one in a chorus of people throughout the day who argued the bill would discourage civic engagement among young people.

“I am standing here today on behalf of my three children who have yet to cast their first ballot in New Hampshire,” Schmitz said. “If Senate Bill No. 3 passes, I will do everything in my power to convince them not to settle in New Hampshire. Why? Because it would no longer be welcoming to young people.”

The bill requires anyone registering within 30 days of an election to provide extra proof that they have roots in the community where they’re trying to vote — a lease, proof of residency at a college or university, a car registration or other kinds of documents. Critics say college students are among those less likely to have the kind of documents the bill asks for, and that its complexity could drive young people away from the polls.

Whether that would happen — and whether out-of-state college students studying in New Hampshire should be allowed to vote here in the first place — came up over and over again in Tuesday's testimony.

Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bob Clegg, testifying in support of SB3, argued that attending school in Keene or Durham doesn't, in his view, equate to truly living in the community.

"If you don't live in my community, please don't vote in my community,” Clegg said. “You don't have to pay for the results of your actions. I do."

Later, when asked to clarify his views on student residency, Clegg said: “If you are only going to school in Keene or Durham, and that’s not really where you live, and you’re staying on campus or you’re renting an apartment or you’re part of a frat house, then you don’t really live there. You’re going to school there.”

Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who also testified in support of SB3 when it was up for a public hearing in the Senate last month, said he wouldn't support the bill if he believed it would dampen voter participation — as some of its critics have warned. Similar arguments were made when lawmakers were debating the state's voter ID law back in 2012, Gardner said, but that law hasn't been shown to have hampered turnout.

"The key thing is that no one's going to be sent home. That's why it's amazing to me, some of the passion that somehow this is this terrible thing to do to the people," Gardner said. "But I just don't see it, just like I didn't see it in the past with some of the others."

While the state's top election official supports the measure, some of the most vocal opponents have been local officials. The night before Tuesday’s hearing, Durham’s town council voted to formally oppose SB3 — saying it’s too complex and will likely lead to longer lines on Election Day, but also that it places too many new responsibilities on the backs of people working the polls. 

“We in Durham already employ 150 volunteers average for a major election," Durham council member Kenny Rotner said at Tuesday's hearing. "We are very, very hard pressed to get that 150. We feel this legislation would put us over the top in terms of being able to meet that demand.”

Others from Holderness, Hopkinton and Newbury also echoed concerns about the burden this bill might place on election workers.

SB3 passed the Senate along party lines and is awaiting a vote from the House Election Law Committee. It has the support of Gov. Chris Sununu and Republican leadership in the Legislature, including the chair of the House Election Law committee.

Casey McDermott is an editor and reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, where she works with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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