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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bill letting anyone contest voters dies

CONCORD – A state Senate panel moved quickly to kill a bill that would let anyone challenge voters without signing an affidavit.

No one spoke in support of this House-approved bill (HB 1301) at the 90-minute hearing where it came under attack from Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s office, the town clerks lobby, the New Hampshire Municipal Association, the Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters and other voter transparency groups.

Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett, said there was no valid reason for doing away with the seven-year mandate that someone must sign and state a reason before challenging someone’s right to vote.

“We can’t move fast enough in my view to toss this into the wastebasket,” Boutin said.

After the hearing, the Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee voted unanimously to recommend killing the bill.

The signed affidavit for any challenge was issued after the 2004 presidential election here during which a conservative Washington lawyer decided to challenge the voting status of every Dartmouth College student, according to Hanover Town Clerk Marilyn Black

“It almost caused complete chaos in the election,” Black recalled. “The law that there had to be an affidavit was wonderful; it worked beautifully.”

Nashua Deputy City Clerk Tricia Piecuch said this bill would empower critics to indiscriminately challenge young or minority votes with impunity and clog lines at the polls.

“This bill takes away rights from voters,” Piecuch said.

Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said his office opposes permitting challenges to occur right at the voter registration table, which is currently not permitted as a place to lodge a challenge.

“This could touch off a free-for-all that could be very difficult for the moderators to control,” Scanlan said.

The House approved this bill from Rep. Paul Ingbretson, R-Haverhill, by a 212-129 vote back on Feb. 22.

What was unusual Tuesday was that Republican members on the House Election Laws Committee, which endorsed the bill, broke ranks to urge the Senate kill it.

“Challenges, while very useful and needed, should be used very judiciously,” said Rep. Joseph Thomas, R-Merrimack. “It must be in writing.”

Rep. Kathleen Hoelzel, R-Raymond, is a longtime moderator in her hometown.

“You will have a difficult time getting qualified people to run for office if they don’t believe they are going to be backed up at the polling place,” Hoelzel said.

Rep. James Belanger, R-Hollis, is a longtime school and town moderator who collected the names of 38 peers who urged the bill’s defeat.

“If you are challenging a voter, have the guts to back it up. Put the challenge in writing,” Belanger began. “This would be like having a police officer pull you over for speeding and cite you but not have to write you out a ticket.”

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or Also, follow Kevin Landrigan on Twitter (@KLandrigan).