A movement is afoot in New Hampshire to bar college students from registering to vote where they go to school. As the Boston Globe reported last week, the New Hampshire legislature is considering a bill that would “take away students’ right to vote in their college town unless they lived there before enrolling and intended to stay.”
The “Live Free or Die” state has been down this road before. Last time, however, the bill ran into a dead end called the Constitution. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that “the town of Hanover [N.H.] could not bar a Dartmouth College student from voting because his parents lived in Hawaii and he planned to leave Hanover after graduation.”
Why, you may ask, is New Hampshire considering this law now? Well, one hint comes from Republican William O’Brien, the New Hampshire Speaker of the House and a noted critic of student voting. While he has not publicly commented on this bill in particular, he has famously said in the past that students are “basically doing what I did when I was a kid and foolish, and voting as a liberal.’’
This kind of politically motivated move to suppress student voting is not a new thing. In 2008, the register of elections in Montgomery County Virginia, the seat of Virginia Tech University, sent out warnings that students who registered to vote at their college “could no longer be claimed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns, a statement the Internal Revenue Service says is incorrect,” and that they “could lose scholarships or coverage under their parents’ car and health insurance.” After pressure, the registrar eventually relented and issued “clarifications” on the matter.
Still, there are states that have laws on the books requiring students to declare an intent to remain in the state in order to register to vote there. The non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice publishes a list of state-by-state student voting laws.
Laws and policies like the one being proposed in New Hampshire have one purpose: disenfranchisement. Strangely, the same community that welcomes the financial benefits that students bring seem to be trying to turn their backs on these same students when it comes to giving them a voice in local governance. The New Hampshire bill’s lead sponsor, Republican Gregory Sorg, said that the intention is to eliminate voters who lack true community ties from influencing elections, particularly in small towns.
“This doesn’t disenfranchise anyone. You have a domicile from the time you are born,’’ he told the Boston Globe, noting that students could still vote by absentee ballot in their home states under his bill.
Of course, there are no colleges in Sorg’s district. This tired old “protect the character of the community” canard is the essential historical ingredient in all flavors of voter suppression. Really, it’s always been about protecting those already in power.