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Theresa Larouche re-declares herself as an undeclared voter after voting in the Republican Primary, Tuesday afternoon, at Milford Middle School.
Sunday, March 4, 2012

NH Legislature taking up issues of voting reform

CONCORD – Republican leaders in the Legislature would like to change what you would need to bring to the polls to vote, when you could vote in the state primary and how the voting privilege would tie into your New Hampshire residency.

While jobs and the economy remain the top issue for the Republican-dominated Legislature, election law reform is included in the agenda that House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, unveiled in February.

The Senate’s top Republican has gotten behind and authored one of the most sweeping changes: moving the date of the state primary back a few weeks into August.

Many of these proposals have been tried and failed in years past, often because of opposition from a Democratic governor.

Prospects have changed this year for a variety of reasons, ranging from the willingness of supporters to work with past opponents to a voter fraud incident on presidential primary day in January.

Conservative blogger James O’Keefe hired volunteers to pose as deceased voters at polling places in Nashua and Manchester, using undercover video cameras while doing it.

None of those bogus votes were cast, but several were given ballots, and O’Keefe said the incident cries out for New Hampshire to adopt a voter ID law.

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, agrees.

“This video has placed a shocking exclamation point on the need for immediate reform to New Hampshire’s election laws to ensure that voter fraud does not taint the rights of our citizens to have their votes counted in an honest, responsible way and impact our state,” O’Brien said.

“The nation has been horrified by the absurd level of ease of voting illegally here, and we should all be embarrassed that the state has not moved more quickly to fix a gaping hole in our laws.”

Clearly, the change they want more than any other to occur this year is to compel voters to show an ID before voting.

Republican-led Legislatures have been trying for more than 15 years to adopt this change amid opposition from a broad coalition of groups.

Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, has thwarted these attempts three times by vetoing a voter ID bill, most recently last summer.

Former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, now a Democratic U.S. senator, struck down similar attempts on two occasions and her vetoes were upheld.

Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, hopes he has broken the logjam.

A year ago, House leaders had insisted the voter ID bill treats those who show up without proof of identity as “provisional” voters. Their proposal would have made these residents find proper papers and bring them to city and town clerks within three days of an election.

Lynch found that unacceptable and cited it in his veto message. The state Senate overwhelmingly sustained the veto.

Prescott then went to work on an alternative voter ID bill, SB 289, with the goal to win over some past opponents such as Secretary of State Bill Gardner and the New Hampshire City and Town Clerks Association.

“This was something I’ve spent a lot of time on, working and reworking to try and bring folks to a consensus,” Prescott said.

The latest rewrite succeeded, as Gardner and the clerks support it principally because it does away with provisional voting and lets those without an ID cast a ballot that gets counted on election night.

Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said this latest edition is more user friendly for state and local election officials than past plans.

“We find nothing objectionable about what is contemplated here,” Scanlan said.

Other voter reform groups feel differently.

The state chapters of the League of Women Voters, Civil Liberties Union and Public Interest Research Group oppose the change as unnecessary, given that past audits haven’t found much incidence of voter fraud in the state.

“New Hampshire PIRG has long supported and engaged in efforts that make it easier for eligible voters to register and cast their ballots, including extending voting hours and voting on weekends,” said Addie Shankle, the state advocate for the Public Interest Research Group.

“We’re seeing legislation develop in both the House and Senate that moves in the opposite direction from that, and it is deeply concerning.”

Regarding the date of the 2012 state primary, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley said he believes it makes sense to do this so as to ensure that ballots get to overseas military personnel in time.

“This is not going to change the culture of elections in New Hampshire,” Bradley said. “It’s a two-week move back; this is not a big deal.”

This year, it would move the state primary from Sept. 11 to Aug. 28.

Five Senate Republicans opposed the bill, citing Gardner’s reluctance to change tradition.

“I get concerned about making changes in this system that has been in place for 100 years,” said Sen. Ray White, R-Hollis. “Why would we think to tinker with that?”

If Gardner prevails on Lynch to veto the bill, it’s clear this reform wouldn’t occur, as the veto would be sustained in the Senate.

Another House GOP move aimed at strengthening existing law would be to link residency in New Hampshire to all other legal definitions of the concept.

Rep. David Bates, R-Windham, said HB 1354 is important because election law isn’t clear on whether all New Hampshire voters must reside here.

“I have satisfied myself there is no unintended consequences of making this change,” Bates said during debate on the measure two weeks ago. “This changes the law that might give the wrong impression that you don’t have to be a resident to vote.”

Rep. David Cote, D-Nashua, said such law changes are aimed at discouraging out-of-state college students and minorities from voting.

Bettencourt and O’Brien are co-authors of the bill, which easily cleared the House by a veto-proof majority, 248-101.

A related bill, HB 1478, would compel people who are signed up to vote here to also have their cars and trucks registered in New Hampshire.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.