I doubt too many white Americans imagined that a Trump presidency could negatively impact their voting rights, but at least in New Hampshire, that’s shaping up to be the new reality.
The Granite State’s Republican-controlled state legislature has responded to narrow defeats — we’re talking less than a percentage point — to Democrats in the 2016 election by proposing a poll tax that targets college students: a vital Democrat voting bloc. That’s right, Trump’s presidency has made white supremacy en vogue again, so it was only a matter of time before poll taxes became a legislative agenda for the GOP. Except now the oppressive policies of Jim Crow have taken aim at educated Americans in an overwhelmingly white state (93 percent white and 1 percent African American).
In 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in New Hampshire by fewer than 3,000 votes (47.6 percent to 47.2 percent), and incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte lost to Democrat and former New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan by fewer than 1,000 votes (48 percent to 47.9 percent). Democrats won both of New Hampshire’s seats in the House of Representatives, too. At the federal level, New Hampshire is entirely blue.
But at the state level it is completely red. Republicans control the governor’s mansion and both houses of their state legislature. Chris Sununu — of the New Hampshire Sununus — won the governorship in 2016. Chris’ father, John H. Sununu, is a former governor who campaigned for Trump, and his brother, John E. Sununu, is a former U.S. Senator from the state.
Following the election, Kris Kobach, the vice chairman of President Trump’s Commission on Election Integrity, and state Republicans blamed their defeats on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and out-of-state college students who Republicans feel should not be allowed to vote in state elections.
In September, Kobach published an op-ed in Breitbart claiming that over 5,000 non-residents voted illegally in New Hampshire and effectively swung the elections to the Democrats. New Hampshire is more conservative than neighboring Vermont and Massachusetts, so Kobach proposed that neighboring liberals invaded the state on election day to prevent Republican victories.
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who sits on Trump’s voter registration commission with Kobach, vehemently rebukes these accusations, but the state legislature agrees with Kobach’s assessment, and its poll tax legislation targets these supposed “non-residents.”
According to New Hampshire’s constitution you do not need to be a “resident” to vote in the state. You need to be “domiciled” there, which means you reside in the state “more than any other place.” This language allows college students and other individuals who live in the state but hold an out-of-state driver’s license to vote in New Hampshire.
House Bill 372 intends to limit New Hampshire voting to “residents,” and residency in New Hampshire comes at price. A New Hampshire resident must obtain a state driver’s license and register their car, and none of that comes cheap. A driver’s license is $50, and registration and plate fees are $23. Registrants must also pay state and municipal fees that can total hundreds of dollars. Essentially, this is a tax specifically targeting college students that could prevent them from exercising the franchise.
New Hampshire has more than 30 colleges and universities. The University of New Hampshire, Durham has over 15,000 students, and 56 percent are out-of-state. Dartmouth College has over 6,000 students, and only 2 percent of undergrads are from New Hampshire. Between these two schools alone nearly 12,000 students could be disenfranchised by this law.
“It’s an attempt to suppress the vote and make it harder for people to participate in our democracy,” Democratic State Senator Jeff Woodburn told the Concord Monitor.
If the bill passes, college students would need to either become residents and pay the tax in order to vote, or they could opt to remain “domiciled” and relinquish their right to vote in the state.
Republicans argue that Democrats are blowing things out of proportion and state that this bill helps ensure the integrity of the vote in New Hampshire.
“If you’re a resident, if this is the place you choose to live abandoning all others, I want you to vote in New Hampshire. But if that place you choose to interact with is in Massachusetts, in Vermont, in Maine, in Kalamazoo, New Mexico, then I want you to vote there,” said Republican New Hampshire State Senator James Gray.
Gray’s explanation for this awful, and potentially unconstitutional, bill falls in line with justifications for other poll taxes and voting impediments throughout American history. Essentially, conservatives argue for seemingly minor, innocuous changes to the law in order to protect the supposed integrity of our elections, but in reality to keep Democratic-leaning voters from making it to the polls. Historically, it’s mostly been African Americans; but in Trump’s America, it looks like you can be the wrong kind of white person, too.
If New Hampshire wanted to protect the integrity of its elections it could easily follow the lead of their neighbors Vermont and develop efficient and secure methods for enfranchising everyone who lives in the state. Vermont has started automatic voter registration for residents when they turn 18, has no poll taxes for out-of-state college students, and even expands the franchise to felons and the incarcerated. Only a conviction of voter fraud can prevent you from voting in Vermont.
Few doubt that this legislation will make it through the state legislature and that Gov. Sununu will sign it into law. Sununu already signed into law a voter intimidation bill earlier this year that required the police to come to a prospective voter’s place of residence to prove their residency. If these New Hampshirites lacked proper documentation they could be arrested and fined.
HB 372 — like the voter intimidation bill — will probably get halted by the courts, but Trump’s GOP looks emboldened to challenge our voting rights protections in order to stay in power. America went down this path in the 1800s, and we must ensure that we don’t return to this oppressive status quo.