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What Would Changing Registration Rules in N.H. Mean For Student Voters?

The Memorial Union Building at the University of New Hampshire.

Last fall, University of New Hampshire student Rachel Berg was one of the more than 3,000 people in Durham who registered to vote on Election Day. And she came prepared.

“I had to bring a few forms of ID, I don’t remember exactly what,” Berg recalled while sitting in a corner of the UNH student center last week. “License, I think. School ID. And maybe my passport, just to be safe.”

Berg, who’s from Grantham originally, also needed to be able to prove she lived in Durham. In her case, that meant bringing along a package her parents used to mail an orthopedic ankle brace to her on-campus apartment.

Voting officials in Durham have come to accept a hodgepodge of evidence from students to show residency: a letter from a dorm supervisor, for example, or a piece of mail that lists a student’s specific residence hall. In a pinch, Durham officials said students can also prove their domicile by holding up a cell phone to show their dorm address listed on a university website.

“I had never heard of that, but that’s actually not a bad idea, frankly,” said Hampstead Sen. Regina Birdsell. 

Birdsell is the sponsor of Senate Bill 3, which would impose tougher enforcement on voter registration in the 30 days leading up to an election. The bill doesn’t say college students can’t vote, and even says people can register by proving “residency at an institution of higher learning” — but the legislation itself doesn’t elaborate on what “residency” means.

“Basically, we’re just making sure that they live in the dorm that they say they live. It would be just as someone who says I live at 1234 Park Street,” said Birdsell. And she noted that the kinds of documents students are already showing at the polls in Durham — even the website — should still satisfy SB3’s requirements.

But the bill has been controversial, and in the debate, college students have been singled out more than any other as a population that could be disenfranchised by stricter rules. 

Explore the interactive map below to learn more about same-day registration patterns across the state. For the most part, communities with a high number of college students saw the largest share of same-day voters in the last general election. Durham (home to the University of New Hampshire) leads the state with nearly 19 percent of its electorate registering the day of the election, followed by Plymouth (home of Plymouth State University) at 15 percent and Keene (home of Keene State College) at 13 percent.

Even if nothing changes about the types of documents students can show at the polls, Durham election officials said it can already be a challenge just to get students to bring what they need.

“Most students know what the rules are. But there are still quite a few, I would say maybe as many as half of the students who register to vote on Election Day, don’t have proof of domicile,” said Ann Shump, who oversees voter registrations in Durham. “Because, you know, it’s not that easy — especially when you live in a dorm — it’s not all that easy to pick up proof, to get proof and bring it over at the last minute.”

UNH student Elias Terryl-Walker said one problem is that often where students live, in dorms or student housing, is not where they receive their mail. He pointed out that all on-campus mail goes to the Granite Square Station Student Postal Center — and often, his letters are addressed simply to “83 Main Street,” not his specific residence hall.

“It's really not as easy as I think a lot of people would believe,” said Terryl-Walker, who also testified against SB3 at its most recent public hearing.

Under the bill, voters who don’t have the right kinds of documents wouldn't be turned away at the polls, but they are warned that if they don’t have the documents or don’t follow up within 10 or 30 days (depending on how often their town hall is open), they could face a $5,000 fine and penalties for voter fraud.

While Shump, the voting official, doesn’t see much of a difference in what SB3 asks students to provide, she said the extra steps and warnings it spells out could be intimidating to same-day registrants — which, last year, accounted for almost one-fifth of all general election voters in Durham.

“They’ll think this is too much work,” Shump said. “And they might worry about the perception of, ‘What if I’m registering to vote and I really do live in the dorm, but what if I don’t give them the right information? What is that going to look like?’ I think it will scare some people away.”

Adding to the controversy is the fact that — despite assurances from Birdsell that it’s not meant to target college voters — some of the bill’s other supporters have praised it precisely because they think it might prevent students from voting where they go to school. Former Republican Majority Leader Bob Clegg, testifying at a recent hearing, argued that students are not truly residents of those communities.

“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,” Clegg said. “You’re going to school there.”

Many of those students see it differently. UNH graduate student Scott Loranger pointed out that students are the ones spending most of the money at local businesses, and they’re still subject to the laws and regulations decided by those elected at the ballot box.

“To try and say they don't have a stake is, I think, somewhat insulting to the students in that town,” Loranger said. “We are involved, we are interested in being involved, and to say that we're not part of the community is just really inaccurate.”

On paper, SB3 would seem to still give students a way to stay involved — as long as they’re able to get the right kind of paperwork. Whether the rhetoric around the bill keeps them away is another story.

Casey McDermott is a senior news editor at New Hampshire Public Radio. Throughout her time as an NHPR reporter and editor, she has worked with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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