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NH Secretary of State signals support for ‘significant’ change to voter registration process

Voting sign in Lebanon
Jason Moon
/
NHPR
A voting sign in Lebanon, NH, in 2018.

New Hampshire’s top elections official is signaling his support for a Republican-backed measure that would alter how first-time voters register.

The bill in question would mandate new voters in the state arrive at the polls with proof they are qualified to vote — including documentation that they are U.S. citizens. At a hearing Wednesday where lawmakers were trying to find agreement on the final details of the legislation, Secretary of State David Scanlan said it is not an “unreasonable” change to the current process.

“I don’t think that it is voter suppression or too much to ask voters to be able to give that confidence that they’re qualified to vote,” Scanlan said. “There are limits: I mean, it can go to an extreme in either direction, but I believe that asking for qualifications is not unreasonable.”

At the same time, Scanlan acknowledged that the changes — which would take effect immediately, if they become law — would require his office to quickly roll out a series of training sessions for local election officials.

“I agree that what is being asked is a significant new program, and it will require effort on the part of local election officials to be trained on this new process so that they understand it,” he said.

Until now, Scanlan had not spoken publicly about this and a related measure, which has passed the Legislature is awaiting action by Gov. Chris Sununu. Both proposals would end the process of allowing people to sign legally-binding sworn affidavits if they don’t bring certain documents proving their qualifications to the polls, and both proposals would take effect for the upcoming state primary election in September.

Republican lawmakers say the change is necessary to instill confidence in the election process, though the sponsors of the bill concede there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud under the current registration system.

Democrats and some voting rights groups oppose the measure, saying that having to provide a passport, birth certificate or naturalization papers to prove citizenship is a burden that could disenfranchise eligible voters who aren’t aware of the new requirements.

Under the bill still pending before lawmakers, Scanlan’s office would operate a hotline on election day that would field phone calls from local voting officials seeking to confirm someone’s qualifications to vote because they failed to bring certain documents. Though the proposal has limited details, backers of the hotline say state officials would be able to use a variety of databases to attempt to confirm someone’s qualifications, while they are inside of the polling location. The measure includes $100,000 in funding to get the hotline up and running. It will come up for a final vote before lawmakers next Thursday.

The other bill that has already cleared the House and Senate also removes the use of sworn affidavits but doesn’t include the election hotline.

Sununu has previously said he is not seeking to make any major changes to New Hampshire’s voting laws, but hasn’t said publicly if he will sign these particular bills into law.

Voting rights groups are likely to challenge the measures in court, should either become law. A bill with some similarities, including that voters prove their citizenship with documentation, previously passed in Kansas, but was blocked by federal courts who deemed it an undue burden on eligible voters.

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.