Plymouth residents, students testify on HB 176



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Plymouth State University junior Elyse Segley rallies students at the State Capitol in Concord last Thursday. A contingent from PSU was joined by fellow students, Republican, Libertarian and Democrat, from Dartmouth, Keene, and Durham, at a rally, press conference and committee hearing on House Bill 176 last Thursday in Concord. The bill, if enacted, would take away the opportunity for out-of-state college students to vote in New Hampshire while they attend school. (Marcia Morris) (click for larger version)
March 02, 2011
CONCORD—The controversy that may have begun with the election of Grafton County "teen Treasurer" and Dartmouth College freshman Vanessa Sievers in 2008 came to a head last Thursday before the Election Law Committee of the New Hampshire House of Representatives in Concord.

Hundreds of people from all over the state attended the committee hearing for House Bill 176, sponsored by Rep. Gregory Sorg (Grafton 3) and supported by many Plymouth area residents who are concerned about the influence of the out-of-state student voting block on local elections.

Concern that "same day" voter registration opportunities, combined with the sudden influx of youth voters in the 2008 Presidential election, led to the defeat of long-time County Treasurer and Plymouth resident Carole Elliot by the 19-year-old Sievers, a freshman at Dartmouth, has culminated in attempts by some Grafton County residents to address the perceived voter imbalance in the District.

HB 176 would impact out-of-state-students' eligibility to vote in New Hampshire by changing the definition of "domicile" in New Hampshire electoral law, for the purposes of determining who is eligible to vote.

It would define a student's "domicile" as the place where he/she lived immediately before matriculating at college or university.

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PSU students stand in solidarity with Secretary of State William Gardner (center, podium), Rep. David Pierce (Grafton 9), Mayor Dale Prejent of Keene, and others during a press conference in opposition to HB176 last week. (Marcia Morris) (click for larger version)
Sorg testified last Thursday that the intent is to restrict eligibility to vote to those residents who intend to reside permanently, or at least indefinitely, in New Hampshire. He said that the current situation is too easily abused, and is open to fraud.

But students from Plymouth State University, Dartmouth College, Keene State and the University of New Hampshire descended on the Capitol last Thursday in an attempt to fight the proposed legislation. Wearing pinstriped suits and silk ties, the Republican, Democratic and Libertarian students' leaders held a rally and press conference.

The students, led by Republican Dartmouth student Will Hicks and Democratic Dartmouth student Jeremy Kaufman, said that they were deeply offended by the implication that that they were not capable of exercising their civic responsibilities.

In particular, they took exception to comments attributed to Republcian House Speaker O'Brien that student voters are "foolish," too "liberal," immature and "lack life experience."

University of New Hampshire law student and Gulf War veteran Josh Denton took particular issue with this characterization.

Plymouth State University student leader Elyse Segley was among the many students who testified at the hearings on Thursday.

"I think that any such assumptions about students' maturity and political views are offensive," said Segley. "I think we are on a slippery slope here. Any electoral law that singles out college students to take away their voting rights is in direct violation of the equal protection clause of the [U.S.] Constitution. Under this bill, if someone comes to New Hampshire to take a job at Wa-Mart, they would be able to vote immediately, but if they come to New Hampshire in pursuit of higher education, it punishes them by taking away their right to vote. Is that what we really want to do?"

Segley was not alone in her concern for the Constitutionality of the proposed legislation. Civil Liberties Scholar, former trial attorney and PSU visiting professor Eric MacLeish was among the legal experts who testified that, in his opinion, the bill was patently unconstitutional.

"There has never been a bill that especially singles out college students in this way," said MacLeish. "If the legislation should ever be enacted, it would surely end up in court. I don't see how it could possibly be defended on Constitutional grounds. The state would ultimately lose."

"Furthermore, I would like to remind those people who would like to deprive these students of their right to vote that we are expecting these students to fight for us, work and pay taxes, and provide for us older folks with Social Security and Medicare in the future," said MacLeish.

But others, like Plymouth resident Neil McIver, said that the bill was not designed to take voting rights away from anyone. He was among those who said that he always voted by absentee ballot when he was away from home at election time, and he would expect the students to do the same thing.

A contingent of Plymouth voters attended the hearings, all donning bright red baseball caps adorned with a button identifying them as a "disenfranchised New Hampshire voter."

In her testimony, Campton resident Linda Dupere pleaded with Election Law Committee members to consider the plight of Plymouth area residents who are vastly outnumbered by student voters in their own hometown.

"I feel like my vote doesn't count," said Dupere.

Elliott was another local resident who submitted written testimony in favor of the bill. It was read to the assembled gathering by Omer Ahern, Jr. on her behalf, as she was occupied working in her capacity as Treasurer of Grafton County at the time of the proceedings.

Meanwhile, student after student testified that they care deeply about the communities where they live as they attend college and university, often feeling more bonded to the New Hampshire towns where they go to school than they ever did to the hometowns where their parents may, or may not, still reside.

Outside the House Representative Chamber, on the Capitol steps, students rallied. Over a megaphone, one student could be heard proclaiming, "I am not liberal or conservative. I'm independent. I don't vote based on party, I vote based on what's best for the country. Kill the Bill! Kill the Bill!"

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