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House Committee Considers Bills to Expand N.H. Voter Turnout

Allegra Boverman for NHPR


New Hampshire Democrats who objected to what they viewed as voter suppression legislation are proposing new bills aimed at expanding voter turnout.

The House Election Law Committee held public hearings Tuesday on two constitutional amendments: One would allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will turn 18 by the date of the general election; the other would make absentee ballots available to all voters, not just those who fit certain circumstances.

While many other states already allow 17-year-olds to vote in state and/or presidential primaries, such a move has the potential to capture more voters in New Hampshire, where the first-in-the-nation primary typically falls about nine months before the general election. The state primary, in contrast, comes just eight weeks before the general election.

Ethan Moorhouse, 20, was 17 when he quit his pizza delivery job to spend every day volunteering for Sen. Bernie Sander's presidential campaign in 2015 and early 2016. Some of his high school classmates, however, saw little point in learning about the candidates because they were ineligible to vote in the primary, he said.

"I had hoped I would have a chance to vote for Sen. Sanders in the general election but knew I wasn't able to help him get there by voting in the primary since I turned 18 in May, three months after the February primary," he said. "I was disheartened to know that despite all the hard work I put into the campaign I wouldn't be able to participate in the voting process even though I would've been 18 by the November election."

As of 2016, 24 states already let 17-year-olds vote in presidential primaries or caucuses, according to FairVote, an electoral reform advocacy group. And according the National Council on State Legislatures, a third of the states allow such voting in state primaries.

The proposal also had the support of Liz Tentarelli, president of the League of Women Voters, and libertarian activist Darryl Perry. He said he'd support going even further and allowing 16-year-olds to vote.

"We have teenagers who are working, who are paying taxes, but they aren't represented," he said. "This is at least a step in the right direction."

The committee heard testimony on a proposal to implement "no-excuse" absentee voting. Currently, absentee ballots are available only to certain voters, including those with physical disabilities and those who are out of town on Election Day. And starting this year, if the National Weather Service issues a winter storm, blizzard or ice storm warning for Election Day, voters worried about safe travel or who can't vote because schools or adult care are canceled can vote absentee only on the Monday before the election. Lawmakers added that provision last year after snowstorms hit on March town meeting days two years in row.

Tentarelli said the League of Women Voters supports the bill because it will provide ballot access to more people. She also admitted she had voted by absentee ballot in March despite not technically meeting the criteria at the time.

"I told my clerk, whom I know well, I would be in another state the next day," she said. "I said, 'I'll be in a state of discombobulation if I have to drive. Neither I nor my car do very well on bad roads."

Milford Town Clerk Joan Dargie supported the proposal, but the city clerk in Nashua, Patricia Piecuch, opposed it, citing concerns about the workload of processing absentee ballots while simultaneously dealing with in-person voters at the polls. The secretary of state's office took no position on the amendment, but Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said he worries about candidates taking advantage of the change.

"I think we've all received mailings that come with applications for an absentee ballot, in many cases with the fields prepopulated with the voter's information," he said. "The concern that I would have is this is one step closer to a process where campaigns or political parties can start managing the absentee balloting process. So if we're going to open the door to this, we have to have a corresponding set of state statutes that keep things in check to make sure our elections are being run fairly and with integrity and we limit opportunities for abuse."

In addition to the constitutional amendments, Democrats who won majorities in both the House and Senate in November are pushing legislation to reverse new voter registration laws passed under Republican control. One new law, requiring voters to provide more documentation if they register within 30 days of an election, remains tied up in court. The other, which ends the distinction between full-fledged residents and those claiming the state as their domicile for voting, takes effect July 1.


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