The pandemic has upended lots of things about campus life for the nation’s college students this fall — including voting. That’s particularly true in New Hampshire, a place where the student vote has made a difference in close elections.
New Hampshire politicians have been fighting over the franchise of college students for decades, but that debate came into even sharper focus after the 2016 election — when the presidential contest here was decided by just 2,700 votes.
In the last four years, especially, New Hampshire’s college students have been at the center of State House debates over Republican-backed residency laws. They’ve been plaintiffs when those same laws ended up in court. And they’ve been wooed by Democratic politicians who understand that this small but powerful constituency can give their party an edge in tight statewide races.
And while students like Jonathan Briffault say all this attention is flattering, it can feel a little hollow.
"I think in some ways it's a little bit disappointing that the students are seen as kind of playthings for the major political parties," Briffault said. "At the same time, it reflects the fact that students are passionate about voting and students are passionate about people in their communities and lifting up those around them."
Briffault, a senior at Dartmouth College and the vice president of its Student Assembly, is just the kind of undergraduate whose ability to vote in New Hampshire has been most tenuous the last few years. Like most of Dartmouth’s student body, he’s originally from out of state. But to him, New Hampshire feels most like home.
“I literally have not lived in another place for the same amount of time, like from a sheer weeks perspective,” he said.
But right now, Briffault isn’t living in Hanover. Dartmouth limited the number of students allowed back on campus this fall, because of the pandemic, and he wasn’t approved for a spot in the fall term. He is instead living, temporarily, across the Connecticut River in Vermont while he awaits his return to campus early next year — but he still sent an absentee ballot back to Hanover in the meantime.
“The rules actually affect me in Hanover much more than they do at home,” he said. “I pay taxes in New Hampshire, and so that's where I feel I should vote, and that's where New Hampshire law says I can vote, and I will fulfill my civic obligations to vote there.”
But as recently as this month, politicians were still fighting over whether the law does allow students like Briffault to vote here.
A few weeks ago, the New Hampshire Republican Party asked the New Hampshire Attorney General to ban students from voting absentee in the general election if they are living and learning remotely. That prompted a quick rebuke from Democrats, but also from the attorney general's Election Law Unit, who said the law is clear: A college student, or any other voter, doesn’t lose their right to vote just because they leave the state temporarily, as long as they intend to return.
This latest saga over student voting came and went fairly quickly, but it underscored why students like Cait McGovern have been walking such a tightrope in their voter turnout efforts this fall. As president of Dartmouth’s Student Assembly, McGovern’s said she’s worked hard to ensure all of the group’s election initiatives are “strictly nonpartisan.”
“There are many different organizations on campus that are political groups that are going to be sending out voting emails or sending out information,” McGovern said. “We want to make sure students know that if they have any concerns, any questions, anything, they can come to us for information and know that this information is going to be objective, it's going to be truthful, and they're not going to have to question whether or not it's the accurate information.”
To that end, McGovern, Briffault and others on the Student Assembly have launched a series of efforts to get as many of their peers as possible to vote this fall. They partnered with campus officials and the Hanover clerk’s office to organize on-campus voter registration drives. They also worked closely with local election officials to verify the voting information they’ve been sharing in videos and other social media posts.
The Student Assembly also sponsored an online tool meant to make it easier for students who were already registered in Hanover to request an absentee ballot with just a few clicks, which Dartmouth has since incorporated into its official student voting resources.
In each instance, McGovern says the Student Assembly they has been careful to leave the choice of not only who to vote for but also how and where to vote up to each student.
“Our only goal is ensuring that students know their voter rights and that students are able to vote easily during this election,” McGovern said.
It’s not clear how many students are planning to cast a ballot in New Hampshire while they’re away from campus this fall. But for all the emphasis on that group of students, there are also others like Jennifer Qian, whose plans for the fall elections were thrown off after the pandemic sent her back home to North Carolina.
“I remember a while ago I was like, 'I don't know where I should vote,' ” Qian said.
Both New Hampshire and North Carolina are, in her words, “pretty swing.” And Qian has voted in New Hampshire before, during the 2020 presidential primary, when she was still living in Hanover. But she isn’t sure when she’s going to return: She’s scheduled to be off for the winter term, and then pursuing some off-campus work programs in the following months. So, she's casting her general election ballot in North Carolina.
“I guess I was just glad that I have the option to vote in either location,” Qian said. “And for me, I just wanted to be able to vote in North Carolina and kind of, like, make my voice heard more here, especially with some of the local elections here.”
And for now, North Carolina — not New Hampshire — feels most like her home.