From Residency Rules to Campaign Finance Reforms, A Guide To N.H. Voting Bills in 2019

Feb 28, 2019

Battles over ballot access have been raging for decades at the New Hampshire State House, and this year is no exception.

Lawmakers from both parties have filed nearly 60 bills proposing changes to every step of the election process: from the moment someone tries to register, to when they cast their ballot, to when the ballot is counted, and beyond. While much of the spotlight has been on voter eligibility changes, there are no shortage of other policies on the table. Here are a few themes to watch as those reforms come up for debate in the months ahead.

Who Can Vote in N.H.

On the campaign trail last fall, Democrats repeatedly invoked Republican-backed voting bills in their pitch to voters. And at the State House this spring, Democrats have made reversing those laws one of their chief priorities.

The House Election Law Committee — or rather, the Democrats who hold the majority on that committee — has endorsed two bills designed to roll back two of the Republicans’ major reforms of the last two years.

One of those bills, House Bill 105, would eliminate a series of new voter registration requirements that Republicans passed in 2017. That law, Senate Bill 3, required new voters to provide documentation proving they lived where they were trying to vote and added penalties for those who didn’t comply.

Another, House Bill 106, would add just four words back into the state’s residency standards: “for the indefinite future.” That small but significant phrase has been at the heart of a contentious debate over voter eligibility standards in recent years. Republicans, with the backing of the New Hampshire Secretary of State, removed the language in 2018. Their goal, they said, was to clear up confusion about who’s allowed to vote here.

Outside of the State House, both of those Republican voting laws that Democrats are seeking to reverse are also the subject of ongoing litigation. The New Hampshire Democratic Party and the local chapter of the League of Women Voters sued to block SB3 shortly after it went into effect. The New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging HB1264 a few weeks ago, and the New Hampshire Democratic Party filed its own case challenging the same voting law just this week.

While the above bills are likely to get most of the attention this session, they’re far from the only ones aiming to change who can participate in New Hampshire elections.

House Bill 486 would require the Department of Corrections to do more to educate people who’ve been convicted of a felony about their right to vote upon completion of their criminal sentence. The bill would also clarify that “a person who is on probation or parole” from a felony conviction would be eligible to vote.

Senate Bill 268 would offer “in-state tuition at any institution in the university system of New Hampshire for any person who is registered to vote in this state.” If passed, this Republican-backed bill would undoubtedly complicate Democrats’ efforts to allow college students to vote in New Hampshire — given that it would cost the state an estimated $139 million lost annual tuition revenue.

One bipartisan measure, CACR 5, would amend the New Hampshire Constitution to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections, if they will be old enough to participate in that year’s general election. Similar legislation is already on the books in 18 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

How N.H. Voters Can Register

Two bills from opposite sides of the political aisle would add opportunities for voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Senate Bill 305, sponsored by Republican Sen. James Gray, “allows the division of motor vehicles to accept voter registration forms as part of the drivers' license issuance or renewal process.”

Another Democratic bill, Senate Bill 7, proposes a different approach: It would automatically share information collected at the DMV with the state’s central voter database, unless someone opts out of the process. The bill's supporters say it would not require DMV staff to facilitate the voter registration process on the spot; rather, it would make use of the information already supplied when someone updates their license or vehicle registration. The proposal has the support of a long roster of Democratic lawmakers and voting rights groups, but the statewide town clerks association and state agencies responsible for implementing the program have expressed concerns.

How Voters Cast Their Ballots

New Hampshire does not allow early voting and is one of 19 states that requires voters to have a state-approved excuse before casting an absentee ballot. House Bill 611 would change that by making absentee voting an option for anyone who is otherwise qualified to vote in New Hampshire.

Taking a cue from the state of Maine, a group of Democrats are also pushing to bring ranked-choice voting to New Hampshire. Maine implemented the measure — with some degree of controversy — for last fall’s elections. And at least a dozen other states are moving to implement or study the feasibility of ranked choice voting for their elections, according to FairVote, a voting advocacy group.

In New Hampshire, House Bill 728 sought to allow voters to rank candidates “in order of preference” and proposed that the candidates who earned the highest ranks would win the election. Right now, the bill is held up in the House Election Law committee.

That’s not the only bill that wants to remove the requirement that voters pick just one candidate for a given office. House Bill 505, sponsored by Republican Rep. Max Abramson, would allow “voters to vote for multiple candidates for the same office.” The House Election Law Committee is unanimously opposed to the bill, in part because it doesn’t specify how a winner could be decided.

Who Can Run, How Campaigns Are Run and How Those Campaigns Are Funded

Lawmakers from both parties are also putting forward a batch of reforms to the state’s rules for political campaigning.

As usual, there are a host of bills aimed at how candidates raise money for their campaigns. Senate Bill 304 proposes a public financing system for gubernatorial and executive council elections. Senate Bill 156 would close a longstanding loophole in New Hampshire’s campaign finance laws that allows donors who have maxed out their individual contribution limits to funnel additional money to candidates through their businesses.

Other bills would address how that money is spent and disclosed. House Bill 651, which passed its first big hurdle in the House this week, would allow candidates to use campaign money on childcare expenses. House Bill 152 would require candidates to itemize campaign contributions over $100, whereas the current threshold is $25. And Senate Bill 105 would add more disclosure requirements around governors’ inauguration committees — spurred in part by Democrats’ frustration with Gov. Chris Sununu’s handling of his inaugural fund.

Some other reforms  — like House Bill 297 and Senate Bill 231 — would promote transparency and truth in political advertising. The first would require advertisements by a particular political group to disclose the same address used in that group’s campaign filings with the Secretary of State; the second “establishes consequences for political advertising which materially misstates and/or misrepresents facts about a candidate's position and voting record on an issue.”

And then there are a handful of reforms with an eye on the 2020 presidential election.

House Bill 588 — nicknamed the “Bernie bill” — would change the candidacy paperwork for presidential contenders to allow those who are “recognized… in the party in which [they] desire to file” to get on the presidential primary ballot. As WMUR has reported, the bill is designed to address the fact that Sanders is seeking the Democratic nomination for president but is not officially a member of the Democratic party — which could put him at odds with the New Hampshire Ballot Law Commission, if the law is not changed.

Senate Bill 102 is not officially nicknamed the “Trump bill” — but it might as well be. The measure would “require disclosure of federal income tax returns by presidential and vice-presidential candidates,” which the sitting president declined to do during his 2016 campaign. The Democrats sponsoring the bill say it will allow New Hampshire to set an example “when it comes to transparency,” but the Secretary of State’s office warned that it could lead the state down a “slippery slope” of new requirements for ballot access.