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Republicans seek major voting overhauls, but chances of success appear slim


Republicans seek major voting overhauls, but chances of success appear slim

Jan 24, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Ethan DeWitt
Republicans seek major voting overhauls, but chances of success appear slim
The New Hampshire Legislature will take up several bills related to voting and elections. (Kate Brindley | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The bills were as ambitious as they were short-lived. A pair of Republican attempts to overhaul who gets to vote in party primaries – and who gets to run – suffered major setbacks last week, when the House Election Law Committee voted to recommend they not move forward.

One bill, House Bill 101, would have required that all New Hampshire voters register for a political party four months before the September state primaries. That bill, which would have eliminated “open primaries” and ended New Hampshire’s tradition of unaffiliated voters participating in one party’s primary and then registering as undeclared, was recommended “inexpedient to legislate,” 19-0. With that recommendation, it will likely be killed on the House floor.

Rep. Ross Berry, a Manchester Republican and vice chairman of the committee, argued the bill removed the ability of parties to choose for themselves whether they wanted to restrict their primaries. Under current law, political parties may do so, as long as they inform the Secretary of State’s Office. 

The other, House Bill 116, received an extension. The bill would have significantly raised the entry requirements for major candidates to appear on primary ballots; candidates for governor or U.S. Senate, for instance, would need to raise $10,000 or collect 25,000 signatures, as opposed to the current requirement of $100 or 200 signatures. After bipartisan concern that the new thresholds were too high, the committee voted to retain the bill, allowing its sponsor to work on it through the spring and summer and present it again in the future. 

The actions took the steam out of two bills that likely would have sparked fierce debate, even in the Republican-led Legislature. But Republicans are proposing a number of other bills this year that could affect voters at the polls.

One, House Bill 405, would require that New Hampshire college students be receiving in-state tuition in order to register to vote. The bill would mandate that students provide a copy of their tuition bill, and requires that public universities and community colleges provide the Secretary of State’s Office a list of students receiving in-state tuition.

That bill would require college students to follow different residency rules than other New Hampshire residents; currently all residents may vote as long as they reside in the state as of Election Day and plan to remain residents for the foreseeable future. But students must be residents of the state for 12 continuous months in New Hampshire before they qualify for in-state tuition.

Another bill, House Bill 460, would require people registering to vote to prove their U.S. citizenship by producing either a birth certificate, a passport, naturalization papers, or “any other reasonable document which indicates the applicant is a United States citizen.”

Sponsored by Rep. Bob Lynn, a Windham Republican and a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, HB 460 would also require voters to produce identification to vote without exceptions, eliminating the current laws that allow voters to sign an affidavit if they do not have identification on Election Day.

House Bill 496 would require two election monitors – one from each party – to accompany a town or city clerk to a nursing home or elder care facility in order to deliver and collect absentee ballots.

“The absentee ballot observers shall ensure the process of receiving, marking, and returning the absentee ballots is fair, private, and properly handled,” the bill states. Any activity “that appears to be inconsistent with state statutes” would need to be reported to the secretary of state.

The bill would require town or county party officials to appoint the election observers.

And Senate Bill 156 would make different tweaks to the registration process, and would allow the secretary of state to request that registrants volunteer email addresses, phone numbers, social media accounts, employer names, Social Security numbers, or addresses of friends and family in order to be contacted after the election.

Some Republican voting bills appear to be written as a response to recent election developments in New Hampshire. House Bill 452 would prohibit poll workers from folding absentee ballots, preventing the behavior found to be a major factor in issues during the 2020 Windham election. After a series of recounts last year that determined control over the New Hampshire House, and a number of challenges to hard-to-read ballots, House Bill 495 would provide more explicit instructions for voters over how to properly make ballot selections.

Others have bipartisan support, including House Bill 333, which would move the state primary date forward; Senate Bill 157, which would require audits of a certain percentage of AccuVote machines after elections; and Senate Bill 158, which would allow town and city clerks to open the envelopes containing mailed-in absentee ballot applications – but not the ballots themselves – before Election Day, giving them the ability to catch errors in the application before voting day and contact the applicant in time to make corrections. 

For their part, Democrats have filed bills attempting to undo some of the changes to voting laws Republicans have made in the past five years. House Bill 502 is an effort to repeal a law passed last year that requires voters to mail documentation to the Secretary of State’s Office within seven days after Election Day if they didn’t produce the documents at the polls – or have their ballots disqualified. And House Bill 40 would reverse changes passed in 2017 that made voting an act of declaring residency and that eliminated a separate status allowing college students to vote while being temporarily domiciled. 

But Democrats have their own proposals to overhaul voting, too. Some will be pushing for ranked choice voting, a process that lets voters rank their choices for each position and uses those rankings to assign secondary votes in order to give a candidate a majority.

Another bill, House Bill 586, would expand who can vote with an absentee ballot to include those who are worried about the safety of driving to the polls and those who cannot access transportation options. House Bill 508 would require absentee ballots be delivered to voters with pre-paid postage.

And two bills – House Bill 447 and Senate Bill 73 – would give cities and towns access to grants in order to purchase election equipment for the polls.

Despite the scope of both parties’ proposals, some in the State House say observers shouldn’t expect major changes this year – especially compared to prior years.

“Nothing is getting passed out of (House) Election Law of consequence,” Berry said in an interview Friday, citing the closely divided House. “Last year, it was a great committee to watch; this year, it’s going to be a snoozefest.”