With the New Hampshire primary right around the corner, candidates are making their big push, and voters are making their final choice. But, for many college and university student voters, that is not their only decision.
Due to a law that a Republican-controlled legislature passed and put into effect in 2019, out-of-state students in New Hampshire may face a series of obligations if they decide to vote in the state’s primary elections on Tuesday, February 11.
At first glance, House Bill 1264 did something simple. It removed four words from the state's definition of residency: "for the indefinite future."
“Prior to House Bill 1264, the law was clear that someone who lived in New Hampshire, but didn't intend to remain ‘for the indefinite future,’ was allowed to vote in NH but wasn't a resident, so didn't have to comply with residency obligations,” explained Henry Klementowicz, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Hampshire. The ACLU is currently challenging the law in court.
Those residency obligations include things like registering a car and getting a New Hampshire driver’s license. Under the new law, if someone votes in the primary, they’ll have 60 days to change their vehicle registration and driver’s license.
“A New Hampshire driver's license costs 50 dollars and we actually a very expensive car registration in New Hampshire. It's not every two years, it's every year and can be hundreds of dollars,” said Klementowicz. He argues those fees amount to a poll tax, which is unconstitutional.
Some think the law is intentionally confusing.
"We want to follow the law,” said Gigi Gunderson, a student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and former president of the Dartmouth College Democrats.
She said out-of-state students have a lot of questions about what to do and when. Questions like: What happens for students who do not have car at college? Do they still have to change their driver’s license if they vote?
“There has just been so much confusion and lack of clarity about what the law means and what the requirements either are after you vote or before you vote," said Gunderson. “The purpose of the law, as it seems because of this lack of clarity, is confusion and intimidation.”
She said she believes the law is intended to reduce the number of liberal, out-of-state students who vote in New Hampshire.
Experts said there might be something to her concern.
Nancy Thomas, who directs the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University, said the midterm election saw a surge in student voting.
"Voting rates then in 2018 doubled — actually more than doubled,” said Thomas. “What we're seeing is an entire group of people who are mobilizing, who are energized, who are interested, and they're turning out. They happen to be young, they are more diverse and they are more activist. And that is a formula for, ‘Gee, are we sure we want them voting?'”
Thomas said New Hampshire is just one of a number of states where it is getting harder for students to vote, despite a Supreme Court ruling saying students can vote wherever they go to school.
“I don't think there's any question that most of these laws are coming out of Republican-dominated legislatures,” said Thomas. “Do I think that the Democrats are above that? No."
She said this matters in New Hampshire because college and university students make up 13 percent of eligible voters. Plus, the small state has a lot of out-of-state students.
Roughly 50 percent of students in New Hampshire are from out-of-state and 50 percent are from in-state. Nationally, Thomas said, about 80 to 85 percent of students go to school in-state.
She said New Hampshire has so many out-of-state students because it has famously low taxes and needs out-of-state tuition — which is higher than in-state tuition — to boost funding for their higher education system.
New Hampshire State Representative Barbara Griffin said House Bill 1264 was not intended to target students. Griffin was chair of the Election Law Committee when House Bill 1264 and a related Senate bill were passed. The current Democratic legislature tried unsuccessfully to repeal the measure. Griffin, a Republican, said the purpose was to boost voter confidence in election outcomes.
“In New Hampshire, there is a perception that there are people voting here who should not be voting here,” said Griffin. “When I vote at the polls, I want to make sure everybody voting with me is supposed to be voting there.”
She rejected the idea that this amounts to a poll tax because any vehicle registration fee comes after voting — not before. She also rejected the idea that students were targeted. Instead, she said the law is about anyone who lives in the state only part of the time.
"You can have multiple residences,” Griffin said. “I have a house in Utah. I have a house on the Cape. I have lots of places I might go to lay my head."
Whether House Bill 1264 is about boosting voter confidence or confusing voters enough to suppress turnout, everyone seems to agree on one thing, the law matters. Especially for a state Thomas said has a history of very close elections, where student voters most likely influenced the outcome.