How a lie becomes a law: New Hampshire set to restrict voter registration

In recent months, President Trump and Chris Sununu, now New Hampshire’s governor, have falsely claimed that people were being bussed into the state from Massachusetts to vote en masse. 

Now, New Hampshire is set to significantly restrict its voter registration process in a way that could effectively criminalize legitimate voters—even though the state hasn’t pointed to a single case of illegal voting the new restrictions would have stopped. 

What’s happening in New Hampshire is a near-perfect case study of how false rhetoric from the top about voter fraud can play a direct role in driving voter suppression policies.

For decades, say Granite State voting advocates, the myth that people from more liberal surrounding states, especially Massachusetts, have been flooding in to New Hampshire to vote illegally has been floating around in the background of the state’s politics. But it was pushed to the forefront last October by Sununu, who at the time was the Republican candidate for governor.

“There’s no doubt there’s election fraud here,” Sununu told a popular conservative radio host a week before voters went to the polls. “We have same-day voter registration, and to be honest, when Massachusetts elections are not very close, they’re busing them in all over the place.” (Since being elected governor, Sununu has backtracked, without acknowledging his lie. “I do not believe we have widespread voter fraud here in New Hampshire,” he has said.)

Then in February, Trump reportedly told a private meeting of Republicans that he’d have won New Hampshire were it not for thousands of Democrats who were bussed in from Massachusetts and voted illegally. Trump said these illegal voters also prevented Republican Kelly Ayotte from being elected to the Senate. Stephen Miller, a top White House aide, echoed his boss’s false claims soon afterwards on the high-profile forum of ABC News’s This Week.

A CNN panel of Trump voters that aired last week illustrated the effect these stories can have. Two New Hampshire voters confidently referred to the out-of-state voters myth as fact, before acknowledging they didn’t have firm evidence for it after being challenged. 

Meanwhile, a Republican-backed bill that expertly plays on the fears being stoked by the bussing myth has been making its way through New Hampshire’s legislature. Last week, it passed the state Senate on a party-line vote, and it’s expected to pass the House, too. 

Despite now acknowledging that widespread voter fraud doesn’t exist, Sununu says he supports the bill. “We’re going out of our way to make sure there is no voter suppression, nothing like that,” the governor said last week. “It’s simply tightening up the definition of domicile, making sure people have the proper ID to prove you’re domiciled or a resident of New Hampshire.” 

Currently, people who register and vote on the same day in New Hampshire can do so without showing proof of residence, as long as they sign an affidavit swearing they live where they say. The Republican bill would require that anyone who signs the affidavit return within ten days of the election—30 days in some cases—to prove their residence. Those who don’t would be at risk of voter fraud charges.

Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director of the New Hampshire ACLU, says that could subject the voter to a fine of up to $5000. He said certain classes of voters, like students and low-income people, may not have documentary proof of residence on election day, especially if they’ve recently relocated. Rather than expose themselves to the risk of criminal prosecution, they’re likely to just not vote. 

The measure also will likely add to already long lines at the polls in places where same-day voter registration is popular, said Paul Twomey, a veteran New Hampshire Democratic Party election lawyer.

“[It] will lead hundreds if not thousands to lose their right to vote both directly and through massive capacity problems it will cause at places with high percentages of same-day registration, which are mostly college towns and inner cities,” Twomey told The Daily Democracy. “And the voters affected will strangely enough be primarily Democratic in such places.”

In a state that Hillary Clinton and Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, won last year by fewer than 3000 and 800 votes respectively, that could make a big difference.  

We know the busloads of out-of-staters is a myth, but is there any evidence of illegal voting at all in New Hampshire? 

State Sen. Regina Birdsell, the bill’s sponsor, sent The Daily Democracy a list of ten cases of what she said was illegal voting in the state going back two decades (that’s out of over 5 million votes cast since then, or one vote per 500,000). 

“My question is whose votes did these individuals cancel out and when you have elections in a state that can be won by one vote these cases matter,” Birdsell, a Republican, wrote. 

But several of the cases on Birdsell’s list involved things like voting twice in the same election, or a woman voting in place of her dead husband — examples that her bill would do nothing to stop. Asked how many of the cases might have been stopped by her bill, Birdsell didn’t respond. Nor did she respond after being asked for the source of her list, making it difficult to say much about how they might have been stopped.

Here’s a more revealing set of numbers. Under current law, after each election, the state sends letters to everyone who signed an affidavit rather than showing proof of residence when registering and voting. That was 6,033 people after the last election. Anyone who doesn’t respond to the letter is investigated by the state attorney general’s office. But it appears that, over two presidential elections, that process has not led to a single case of a person being prosecuted for voting under a fraudulent address.

The office of Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a Democrat who supports Birdsell’s bill, didn’t respond to several requests for information about cases of fraudulent voting that the measure might have stopped. Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan has acknowledged there’s no widespread voter fraud, but has said it happens in “isolated instances.” 

But Scanlan also has offered another rationale for the bill—one that, as we’ve noted, backers of tight voting laws across the country are increasingly falling back on as they fail to produce significant evidence of actual voter fraud. 

“Voter perception is as important as the reality in elections,” Scanlan told Paul Steinhauser, a leading New Hampshire political reporter, for a story that itself helped stoke fear about fraud. “People, voters, have to have confidence that their elections are operating properly, fairly, with integrity. And there is a fairly high level of lack of confidence in the elections nationwide.”
Wonder why that might be. 

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