On March 8th, 2021, the New Hampshire state legislature tried to make me ineligible to run for office in my college town. That day, there was a hearing on HB362, a bill that would remove student housing as proof of domicile (i.e. where someone lives) in New Hampshire, and thus potentially disenfranchise tens of thousands of college students like myself. New Hampshire has the highest number of college students in the country per capita, with nearly 11% of the 1.3 million population being students enrolled in higher education, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. I was a candidate for local office at the time, and I would have no longer been able to run if the law had passed. Fortunately, this specific bill did not.
This was not the first time the New Hampshire legislature has tried to systematically disenfranchise this influential voting block. In 2017, when the Republican party took back control of the state government, the legislature passed SB3, a bill that attempted to restrict college students by declaring that those living in NH “temporarily” are not legally domiciled in the state for voting purposes. A lawsuit that made its way to the New Hampshire Supreme Court found the law to be unconstitutional, stating that it was “burdening the right to vote” and “violating equal protection.”
So, why does the student vote matter so much? Well, it can directly change electoral outcomes. The Democratic majority in the US Senate (50D-50R with a Democratic vice-presidential tie-breaker) and consequently President Biden’s entire domestic agenda depend directly on New Hampshire college voters. One of our current US senators, Sen. Maggie Hassan, won her election by a margin of only 1017 votes, less than were registered in my college town of Hanover on election day: 1236. She won by far less than the amount of students who cast a vote. New Hampshire’s federal delegation is entirely Democratic, despite a current Republican trifecta in state government.
Some, like Ben Wessel, the executive director of NextGen America (a progressive advocacy nonprofit), argue that this outcome is entirely because of college student voters in the state. Voter polling seems to support this claim, as one recent poll even indicated college voters favor Democratic candidates to Republicans by a nearly four to one ratio. If the Democratic party had lost this New Hampshire senate seat, they would not currently control the US Senate, thus impacting federal and global policy.
In New Hampshire, young candidates have been elected to state office, and zoning reform on the municipal level has been written, proposed, and passed based on college student turnout.
Some have claimed that college students should not vote where they are enrolled because they are temporarily situated and not part of the local community. However, students support local economies, pay taxes, live in the area for the majority of the year, contribute to property taxes, and follow the same laws and regulations as every other community member. In addition to this, students are actually included in the US Census data that decides state and federal grants to municipalities and state governments.
Additionally, college student voting is constitutionally protected by the US Supreme Court, as Symm v US (1979) upheld the right for college students to vote where they are enrolled.
To summarize recent legislative history in New Hampshire, however, bills that restrict student’s legal voting status have been proposed in 2017, 2018, 2021, and 2022, each year the Republican party has had a trifecta in the state since the 2016 elections. Midterm elections saw power briefly change from 2019-2020, as the Democratic party retook both chambers.
A recent law (SB 418) that passed the state senate in March 2022, argued by its supporters to combat statistically unverified voter fraud, would complicate same day voter registration by requiring more stringent information on domicile and specific identification (like photo ID). The bill instructs election officials to throw away the ballots of those that do not provide information after ten days. This has been argued by New Hampshire Democrats as a way to suppress the vote.
Ozan Varol, a constitutional law professor at Lewis and Clark College, argues that the abuse of voter identification laws, in addition to voter registration and eligibility laws, are specific ways that democratic erosion can occur. He states that these are methods used by those in power to limit competition and consolidate power, as they directly prevent accountability from voters by dismantling democratic institutions.
The suppression of college student voters is not unique to New Hampshire, however, as a New York Times investigation argued it is part of a national campaign by Republicans as a way to prevent opposition.
Furthermore, the type of voter suppression is widely seen as not limited to affecting just student voters, as John Shattuck, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Tufts University, argues that the “Republican campaign to suppress or dilute votes has corroded democracy, frustrated the popular will, and stimulated polarization.” He points out that voter identification and eligibility policies often aim to suppress those of certain minorities and socioeconomic status as well. Some even suggest, like Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz of Freedom House (an international nonprofit tracking the health of democracies around the world) that voter suppression facilitated by the same tactics is present in countries across the globe, contributing to a global weakening of democratic institutions.
Voter suppression of New Hampshire college students, as shown above, directly affects electoral outcomes that impact state, national, and global politics (given the United States impact on democracy abroad). One could also argue that the policies suppressing the college student vote contribute to democratic erosion in the state of New Hampshire, a symptom of broader democratic erosion in the United States and abroad.
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