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NH Senate backs stricter proof of eligibility rules for new voters

New Hampshire votes pin. NHPR file photo.
Allegra Boverman for NHPR
New Hampshire votes pin. NHPR file photo.

First-time New Hampshire voters would be required to show a passport, birth certificate or naturalization papers in order to register under a proposal approved Thursday in the state Senate.

The bill, which is sponsored by Republican Rep. Bob Lynn — also the former chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court — would end the use of sworn affidavits, including for proving citizenship among new voters. Under current law, voters are permitted to sign affidavits attesting to their domicile and citizenship if they don’t have proof of their qualifications when registering to vote.

Though there is no evidence of abuse of this system, or of widespread voter fraud in general, supporters of the bill heard Thursday say requiring physical proof of qualifications is reasonable.

Voters who move within the state would not need to show a passport or birth certificate when they register to vote in their new municipality.

The bill passed the Senate on a 12-11 vote and now heads to the Finance committee for further hearings. It previously cleared the New Hampshire House on a 189-185 vote.

Earlier this week, Gov. Chris Sununu told reporters that he was not interested in making any major changes to state election laws, but he was noncommittal when asked if he would sign the affidavit bill into law, should it reach his desk.

The New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office has yet to weigh in on if it believes the measure is constitutional or necessary.

Supporters of the bill, including Republican Sen. James Gray, of Rochester, said the affidavit system is ripe for abuse and difficult to enforce.

“Many of the people that have filled out voter affidavits cannot be found after the election,” said Gray, who added that requiring proof of eligibility to vote would “increase voter confidence” in the process.

Democrats meanwhile warned that the measure, should it become law, is likely to face legal challenges.

“This is really a departure from where we have been,” said Sen. Donna Soucy, a Democrat from Manchester.

Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, a Democrat from Portsmouth, told colleagues that a federal appellate court recently ruled that asimilar measure in Kansas posed an unnecessary burden on voters.

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“It’s a huge change in the rules,” Perkins Kwoka said of the New Hampshire affidavit proposal. “Voters will be turned away in droves.”

Voting rights groups have cautioned the bill could potentially block thousands of voters from registering at the polls.

“Make no mistake: this bill would disenfranchise eligible voters with no evidence or data to back up any reason as to why,” Henry Klementowicz, an attorney with the ACLU of New Hampshire, said following Thursday's vote.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.