Distant Dome: Challenges to Voting Rights Continue 60 Years Later

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Garry Rayno is InDepthNH.org's State House Bureau Chief. He is pictured in the press room at the State House in Concord.

By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome

Sixty years ago was one of the seminal events of the Civil Rights movement in this country with the March on Washington.

The event ended with Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” and like John Lewis’s earlier speech, King also stressed voting rights as a key to overcoming the inequalities among races in America.

Voting rights are essential to a healthy Democracy and have been under attack since the Civil War, but more recently since Barack Obama, whose candidacy turned out voters who had long sat on the sidelines, became president.

Even before Obama’s election, obstacles were constantly placed in front of those who could potentially change the status quo.

There were poll taxes, reading requirements and residency requirements in many states that sought to prevent blacks and other minorities from casting their votes.

Why? Because many were sold on the myth that minorities and the poor would vote for people who would help them at the expense of the wealthy who would have to pay more in taxes.

The contention is much like the contention that blacks will take jobs from white people so instead of poor white people joining with blacks for a more equitable division of wealth for workers, blacks become the enemy.

And today the slogans may have changed but those with the wealth love to describe it as socialism and a vast redistribution of wealth. Instead, the vast distribution of wealth today has been from the middle class to the wealthy as the disparity is greater than at any time since the great depression.

While most of the focus on voter suppression efforts focus on southern and western red states, New Hampshire was one of a handful of states required to submit proposed voting changes to the US Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The US Supreme Court struck down the heart of the act 10 years ago when it removed the section requiring prior federal approval for states deemed in the past to be discriminatory opening the floodgates to changes like doing away with drop boxes, or prohibiting distributing food or water to those in long lines or prohibiting voting on certain days.

One of the major changes the New Hampshire legislature made in recent years is to institute a provisional ballot for those registering to vote on election day without a photo ID.

Senate Bill 418 did away with voter affidavits which were used prior to the change for those without photo IDs, and instead required the new voters to file proof of residency and identity within 10 days of the election.

Under the law the ballots of the affected voters are marked but counted at the end of the day.

However, if the information is not returned in the 10-day period or is insufficient, the vote is not counted and deducted from the total.

The bill was approved in 2022 and was controversial for a number of reasons including the 10-day period which bumps up against the federal requirement for mailing overseas ballots to those in the military and their families. The timeline is short for the Secretary of State in New Hampshire anyway with its September primary, but an additional 10 days makes it very dicey.

Others contend the bill creates two classes of voters, which is unconstitutional, and there are other constitutional concerns about when election results are announced, which is supposed to occur at the end of counting on election day, not 10 days later.

The bill was challenged by the group 603 Forward and former Rep. Manuel Espitia and the two cases were consolidated.

The case has bounced between Hillsborough County Superior Court South and the state Supreme Court and a hearing is scheduled in Hillsborough South for Sept. 11 at 2 p.m.

The Attorney General, representing Secretary of State David Scanlan, claims the plaintiffs lack standing to bring the challenge and ask the court to dismiss the suit.

The plaintiffs are arguing they do have standing although they are not the newly registered voters affected by the bill and want the court to deny the dismissal motion.

This is the most recent court challenge in a long line of voting and registration changes enacted in the last 20 years.

Perhaps the biggest impact that also precedes the current case was passage of a bill in 2012 that required voters to present photo identification in order to vote or you had to sign a voter affidavit swearing you are who you say you are.

Those requirements finally passed after previous unsuccessful attempts when Republicans had veto proof majorities in both the House and Senate during the 2011-2012 term.

Republicans easily overrode Gov. John Lynch’s veto of the bill.

Another voter registration target has been voting domicile, which in state law is a separate designation from residency.

A law wedding the two in the same session as the photo ID bill was approved by lawmakers over Lynch’s objection, but was found unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

Republicans tried again with Senate Bill 3 in 2017 with Republicans in control of the legislature and the governor’s office, which they had not held for 14 years.

The bill changed the definition of domicile to require anyone wishing to register to vote within 30 days of an election to provide documentation of “a verifiable act or acts carrying out” their intent to be domiciled in New Hampshire.

In other words, you have to prove you will live in the state or your town going forward.

The state constitution only requires you be over 18 years old and domiciled in the town or city or ward you wish to vote in, meaning where you have established a physical presence, like a college dorm for example.

The new provision was found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on a unanimous 4-0 decision saying the provision “imposes unreasonable burdens or the right to vote.”
The court said the law was confusing and could deter people from registering and voting.

College students have been a particular target of Republicans over the years, as well as seniors and those with disabilities or who are ill, or any group more inclined to vote for Democrats.

The state lists few legal reasons for requesting an absentee ballot but widened the reach during the pandemic. When Democrats tried to retain the larger window, Republicans shot it down.

Last year, the Election Law Journal ranked New Hampshire as the most difficult state to vote in based on voting measures such as registration deadline, pre-registration laws, voting inconvenience and poll hours, calling it “the cost of voting.”

This year a bipartisan attempt to institute an electronic election portal for registering to vote, or changing party affiliation or your address was killed in a conference committee, when Deputy House Speaker Steve Smith, R-Charlestown, refused to go along with the other seven members and killed the bill saying it did not give legislators a say in developing the portal.

While voter fraud is a popular topic in some circles, there is little to no evidence it has an impact on any election in the Granite State or nationally.

Voter fraud and the constant tales of Massachusetts voters being bused into New Hampshire are the boogeymen used to justify increased restrictions for voting and voter registration, although neither has much validity.

Sixty years later, voting rights are almost as unsettled today as they were when King made his speech in front of the Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C.

In fact, some people today face even greater challenges to use what is a fundamental constitutional right, than they did 60 years ago and that is not healthy for Democracy.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.

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