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NH House rejects bill to toughen voter registration, but a similar plan is still pending

voting in Manchester
Sarah Gibson
Voting booths in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The New Hampshire House voted down a bill on Thursday that would have made sweeping changes to how would-be voters register at the polls. But a similar bill is awaiting action from the governor.

The measure that failed on Thursday sought to eliminate the system of sworn affidavits, which allow someone to sign a legally binding document if they don’t present certain documents. Instead, it would have required those registering to vote for the first time to have documentation in hand that they’re eligible, including proof of citizenship.

Read more: Major NH voting law change nears finish line despite objections

Opponents cautioned that requiring would-be voters to show a passport or birth certificate will disenfranchise people and potentially violates the U.S. Constitution.

There is no proof of widespread voter fraud in the state, and prosecutors rarely bring criminal charges against people who aren’t qualified to vote. Under the current system, the Attorney General’s office investigates the qualifications of anyone who swears to their eligibility using a form following each election. Supporters of stricter registration requirements argued that prosecutors are not able to locate or confirm all of those voters, however.

Republicans in the Senate passed the bill earlier Thursday, but lawmakers in the House — including some Republicans — voted 223 to 141 to table the measure after a brief debate.

The bill voted down Thursday would have also created an Election Day hotline run by the Secretary of State’s office, the Attorney General’s office and Department of Motor Vehicles. Supporters pointed to the hotline as a potential resource for local election officials to confirm someone’s voting eligibility in real time, though it wasn’t clear based on the text of the bill how the system would have worked.

Meanwhile, another bill that also requires stricter proof of citizenship for first-time registrants on Election Day but doesn't include the hotline already cleared the Legislature earlier this session.

But the fate of that bill is uncertain. Earlier this week, Gov. Chris Sununu said he had concerns about the timeline of both measures, which would go into effect immediately. That would give state and local election officials less than three months to prepare before the state primary in September.

“You never want to try and implement something too fast or too drastic in a short period of time that would potentially cause any sort of disruption into the system,” Sununu told reporters.

During Thursday’s debate, Senate President Jeb Bradley, a Republican from Wolfeboro, said the change was an important way to instill confidence in the election process so that voters believe “that their vote was not diluted by people who do not have the right to vote in New Hampshire.”

Opponents of the bill, including Rep. Connie Lane, a Democrat from Concord, said that requiring a would-be voter to bring certain documents to the polls would be a hardship, given that many people either don’t have a passport or may not have easy access to their birth certificate.

Lane also noted that lying on an affidavit about citizenship carries a possible jail sentence and fines, and could result in an undocumented person facing deportation.

“With these potential penalties looming over them,” she said, “it is highly unlikely that non-citizens will misrepresent citizenship.”

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Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.
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