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Taking aim at the student vote

N.H. legislator causes a stir with plan to limit franchise of temporary residents

By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / February 6, 2011

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It might be the ultimate town-gown issue.

Are college students residents of the towns where they attend school, or are they interlopers, merely stopping in along the way with little vested interest in local affairs?

The controversial question has been posed in New Hampshire, where proposed legislation would take away students’ right to vote in their college town unless they lived there before enrolling and intended to stay — a move that could have possible overtones for the first-in-the-nation primary.

Already, the weeks-old legislation is getting serious attention from Republicans and stirring angry responses from Democrats who say the bill is a thinly veiled effort to bar liberal-leaning students from casting ballots. Election law specialists in New Hampshire and beyond have offered criticism — the proposal, they say, flouts court rulings on the question — while college students are crossing party lines to protest the bill.

“We think that we are part of the communities where we are going to school and we think it’s wrong for the state to choose its voters,’’ said Jeremy Kaufmann, president of Dartmouth College Democrats, which is working with Dartmouth College Republicans to craft a retort to the bill at an as-yet unscheduled legislative hearing.

Gregory Sorg, the bill’s sponsor, an attorney from the White Mountains town of Franconia, said the intention is to eliminate voters who lack true community ties from influencing elections, particularly in small towns.

“It’s about making sure that people who live in these towns have some control over the destiny of their towns,’’ he said.

Sorg, a Republican, swatted away criticism that the bill is politically motivated.

“Even if they voted the way that I wanted them to, I would not want them to be voting because they would cancel out the votes of the residents of the town who have a stake in the future,’’ said Sorg, whose district does not include any colleges.

Also, he noted, his bill extends the same voting restrictions to members of the military and federal employees temporarily stationed in the state. Currently, military members and federal employees, like college students, are permitted to vote in New Hampshire while they are in the state.

Sorg’s bill appears headed for serious consideration in the Republican-dominated House. William O’Brien, the House Speaker, has not explicitly backed the bill but has been openly critical of student voting, recently telling a group of residents that college students are “basically doing what I did when I was a kid and foolish, and voting as a liberal.’’

College student voting dramatically expanded in 1971, when the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 years of age to 18 in response to concerns that 18-year-olds could be drafted to serve in the Vietnam War but had no electoral say.

Questions quickly arose over whether students should vote at home or where they go to school. A 1972 US Supreme Court ruling that held that the town of Hanover could not bar a Dartmouth College student from voting because his parents lived in Hawaii and he planned to leave Hanover after graduation.

Doing so would mean that a student, or contract worker or any other person who knew they would be leaving the state could not vote in the state, but those with less precise plans could. Moreover, a promise by a voter of an indefinite stay in New Hampshire did not, the court ruled, necessarily produce “a more intelligent vote, especially in small communities.’’

Lee Rowland, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, a nonpartisan legal think tank that plans to file a critique of the bill with the state Legislature, said courts have been clear that groups of people, such as students, cannot be restricted from voting in a community where they live.

“This bill would unfairly target specific groups . . . who like so many other voters are in the state for a period of time, but are nonetheless full members of their New Hampshire community,’’ she said. “When laws have singled someone out because of their status, they have been struck down.’’

Sorg said his bill does not present a different test for students or federal employees.

“The test is whether you have an intention to reside indefinitely,’’ he said.

He said that his bill would leave room for some students to vote if they can prove their intention to stay indefinitely in the state — for example, by showing active participation in civic events or paying in-state tuition. The evaluation of a student’s intention would be done by supervisors of the voting checklist, he said.

“This doesn’t disenfranchise anyone. You have a domicile from the time you are born,’’ he said, noting that students could still vote by absentee ballot in their home states under his bill. “You don’t lose your domicile until you acquire a new one. So we’re not taking away domicile.’’

Sorg also said his bill would combat voter fraud by ensuring that out-of-state students don’t vote in New Hampshire and their home state. Secretary of State William Gardner said several state investigations have not turned up significant instances of voter fraud by college students.

New Hampshire is among 24 states with “relatively student-friendly laws,’’ according to a 2010 analysis by the Brennan Center. Maine and Vermont also fall into the classification because they explicitly provide that students have a right to vote and that student status alone does not change voting residency, Rowland said.

In Massachusetts, state statutes are not specific on the question, but courts have ruled that students may vote in their college towns. States such as Idaho are considered unfriendly to student voters because they require a student to have an intent to make the state a permanent home, Rowland said.

Challenges to college student voting have arisen in New Hampshire from time to time, many of them focused on the question of a student’s residency. Paul Twomey, an attorney who specializes in election law and is working with the state Democratic Party to defeat Sorg’s bill, said that a onetime practice of telling out-of-state students they had to register their cars before they could vote was challenged and corrected.

Gardner said that while drivers must register their cars within a certain period of residency in the state, that registration has no bearing on the right to vote.

Richard Sunderland, president of Dartmouth College Republicans, said the measure should be defeated, despite any advantage that might give to Democrats. The answer to that issue lies not in restricting the votes of college students, he said, but in broadening the appeal of the GOP to college students.

“Attacking the right to vote is attacking a symptom, not the problem itself,’’ he said.

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com.