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New Hampshire Republicans Are Close to Passing Their Trump-Inspired Poll Tax

A voter casts his ballot on Nov. 8, 2016, in Nashua, New Hampshire.
A New Hampshire voter casts his ballot on Nov. 8, 2016. Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the New Hampshire Senate passed a controversial measure known as HB 372 along party lines, with 14 Republicans in favor and nine Democrats opposed. HB 372 is essentially a poll tax on students who moved to New Hampshire for college, requiring many of them to pay hundreds of dollars in order to cast a ballot. The bill will almost certainly pass the GOP-controlled House in the coming weeks. Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, opposes HB 372, but has not yet revealed whether he plans to veto it.

New Hampshire Republicans have long sought to restrict college students’ ability to vote in the state. In the early 1970s, the state denied the ballot to college students who planned to move away after graduation. A federal court ruled that university students have a constitutional right to vote where they live, but Republican town clerks continued to block students’ access to the ballot for decades. In 2012, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a law that falsely told residents that they could not register to vote unless they planned to remain indefinitely. The New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously invalidated the measure as a violation of the state constitution.

Following the 2016 election, in which Hillary Clinton and Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan won New Hampshire by slim margins, Republicans renewed their focus on the state’s voting laws. Donald Trump claimed that voters from Massachusetts flooded the state to deny him a victory, a baseless allegation endorsed by GOP state legislators. The head of Trump’s voter fraud commission, Kansas’ Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, has also incorrectly asserted that thousands of fraudulent votes tipped the state toward Clinton. (Indeed, despite widespread claims of border-hopping, there is simply no evidence that any out-of-state voter has ever illegally cast a ballot in New Hampshire.)

Republican legislators responded to this frenzy in June by passing a voter intimidation law that adds documentation requirements for new voters and subjects them to arrest and imprisonment if they lack the required forms. A state judge has blocked most of the law, which was apparently designed to scare college students out of voting for fear of arrest. While Sununu’s administration defends that measure in court, GOP lawmakers are attempting to push through HB 372.

Put simply, HB 372 is an effort to impose fines on voters who do not have a New Hampshire’s driver’s license, even though it is legal to vote in the Granite State with an out-of-state license. The bill would impose two affirmative obligations on new voters: Within 60 days of registering, a voter must register her car with the state and obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license. These burdens would not increase electoral integrity in any meaningful way. They would, however, likely dissuade many college students from registering to vote in the state—because many would have to pay hundreds of dollars in order to do so. As I explained in December, when HB 372 passed out of committee:

A driver’s license costs $50, and car registration costs even more. Initial registration and plate fees cost $23. Registrants must also pay separate state and municipal fees; state fees for a midsize car add up to $50 a year while municipal fees for a new vehicle can total several hundred dollars.Various administrative fees (title application, waste reclamation, data processing) add another $20. (College students who don’t have cars won’t face these obligations; a student who moves to New Hampshire for college might prefer to leave her car behind in order to preserve her voting rights.)

If HB 372 passes, then, car-driving college students who move to New Hampshire from another state will have two options. They can relinquish their right to vote, remain “domiciled” without residency, and retain their out-of-state license and registration, costing them nothing. Or they can exercise their right to vote, become “residents,” and turn over hundreds of dollars to the state. Properly understood, the law looks a lot like a special tax on college students who exercise the franchise.

New Hampshire Democrats, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and other voting rights advocates, condemn HB 372 as an unlawful poll tax. During debate on Wednesday, Democratic legislators pointed out that the bill presented a dubious solution to a nonexistent problem. Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn spurned the measure as “a sly political ploy” built “on a myth” designed “to stop democracy from happening.” Democratic Sen. Donna Soucy asked her GOP colleagues, “What is it that we’re trying to fix? What is it that we’re trying to solve?”

“We’re trying to fix trust,” Republican Sen. Andy Sanborn told her. “We’re trying to fix accuracy. We’re trying to fix the belief that your vote counts.”

Sanborn’s statement is deeply ironic. If New Hampshire voters really have lost “trust” in the “accuracy” of their state’s elections, it is the fault of Republicans who recklessly claim that “people coming over the border” are swinging races. The GOP could solve this putative lack of trust by admitting that its allegations of voter fraud were untrue. Instead, Republicans are yet again striving to disenfranchise university students. If the House passes HB 372 and Sununu signs it, New Hampshire will become the first state to enshrine Trump’s voter fraud paranoia into law.

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