Think Election Problems Are Behind Us? Think Again
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the integrity of the presidential election is on the line.
Iowa, with its complex caucus, arcane rules and disastrous election night, is in the rearview mirror. New Hampshire and its simple primary system are next. It should be smooth sailing for the Democrats from here, right?
Maybe not. A potential voting roadblock that has flown largely under the radar is sparking mass confusion for campaigns and would-be student voters ahead of the Tuesday primary. Passed in July 2018 by a Republican majority and governor, House Bill 1264 changed residency requirements in what opponents say was a naked ploy to disenfranchise New Hampshire college students from out of state, who typically vote Democrat.
The law has since been caught in court battles, but a federal judge in November allowed it to continue — while admitting that state courts must explain how the vaguely worded law actually works. It suggests car owners in the state must have a New Hampshire driver’s license and registration to vote — which could mean a $50 registration fee and $300 per month insurance — though many college students who live on campus eight months a year keep their automobile info with home states such as neighboring Connecticut, Massachusetts or Vermont.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other voting rights groups insist that students can vote without these documents, provided they sign an affidavit claiming New Hampshire as their residence. Still, while the law was originally meant to shape general elections in the state, the confusion over it could critically influence who wins the Democratic presidential nomination — potentially favoring candidates who attract older voters (i.e., former vice president Joe Biden) over those who attract younger ones (Sen. Bernie Sanders).
The state’s top five colleges and universities alone have about 20,000 students from outside New Hampshire. In a close race, that vote could be pivotal: In Iowa, there was a 21,000-vote difference between the first-place finisher, Sanders, and the fifth-placed Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
It’s not hard to imagine a situation where students are able to vote without New Hampshire documents in one location, but are turned down at another. For a Democratic Party already grappling with a credibility crisis after Iowa, such discrepancy in voting access would hurt every candidate, because skepticism about whether votes will be counted fairly could lead to depressed turnout against Donald Trump in November as well.
I think we will see a lot of misinformation.
Griffin Sinclair-Wingate, New Hampshire Youth Movement
When contacted, several presidential campaigns said they were working with students to help them vote. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign has signed an affidavit supporting a lawsuit led by two Dartmouth College students against the law arguing it amounts to a poll tax. And on Feb. 4, Warren’s New Hampshire office tweeted a campaign instructional video arguing that college students could vote without proof of residency or prior registration.
“The Republicans don’t want to see students vote, and I assume that’s because they think that a majority of those students are not likely to embrace the Republican agenda,” Warren has said of the law.
Sanders campaign officials say they’re aware of the challenges presented by the law. Their outreach teams are mobilizing students across campuses, including through “Students for Bernie” chapters at major New Hampshire universities. Sanders has also been endorsed by the New Hampshire Youth Movement (NHYM), which has ties to the national Sunrise Movement. Canvassers for NHYM have collected more than 11,000 voter pledge cards from students, whom they will remind to vote on Election Day, and are providing rides to the polls at college campuses across the state. The group’s protesters staged a sit-in at Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s office last May to oppose the law, leading to 10 arrests. “We’ve been blasting it over social media,” says Griffin Sinclair-Wingate, one of the arrested activists.
The Andrew Yang campaign has declined to comment. Meanwhile, the more moderate campaigns have also taken action, even if it might not seem to help them on the surface. “Our campaign will continue to work with college students, advocates and lawyers to ensure that all Granite Staters can exercise their right to vote,” says Biden spokeswoman Meira Bernstein, adding that the former vice president has called for the law to be overturned. Klobuchar has signed fellow U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s petition opposing the law, tweeting her opposition and speaking about the issue at town halls. “You’re the first primary in the nation. Why would you want to start being known as a state that makes it harder for people to vote?” Klobuchar said at a November town hall at New England College in Henniker.
But uncertainty remains. “Some of the field organizers may be confused about it,” Sinclair-Wingate says, adding that he remembers some campaign staff telling voters that the law wasn’t going to take effect (it has). He also worries about interference from Republicans. “I think we will see a lot of misinformation,” he says. That may seem conspiratorial … until you remember that Trump supporters flooded caucus hotlines in Iowa to increase vote delays last Monday.
It’s clear from interviews at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, that many students know next to nothing about the law’s requirements. Even Ben Kremer, the then college student who famously got Sununu on video promising to veto the bill — the governor later signed it anyway — says he is unclear about the law at times. “It’s really confusing,” he says, at one point suggesting students should bring a piece of mail proving their address, at another reiterating that all they need to do is sign an affidavit.
And the situation could get worse if some of the 6,000 poll workers expected to run elections on Tuesday also aren’t sure about the rules.
Depressed college voter turnout would almost assuredly hurt Sanders, who has a healthy lead in most polls in the state. It could even lead to the Vermont senator being upset by another contender, such as Biden or former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who are currently neck and neck, according to OZY’s Forecast of the race. That would be a double whammy for Sanders, considering that Iowa’s delayed results robbed him of a chance to soak in his total vote victory — and ride the momentum of the so-called Iowa bump — last week. Will we see history repeat itself in yet another snowy, early-voting state?