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May 08. 2013 3:49PM

Party line votes on Senate panel to change voter ID, registration laws

CONCORD -- Along party lines, a Senate committee on Wednesday supported on a 3-2 vote changing the current state voter identification law by removing its clear statutory reference to student IDs as an acceptable form of voter ID.

Also Wednesday, the Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee voted -- again along partisan lines -- to recommend passage of legislation that addresses the requirements that one needs to meet to register to vote.

Committee Chairman David Boutin, R-Hooksett, said although the specific reference to a student ID is removed under his voter ID amendment, it would allow state university system student IDs to be used under a broad requirement that the would-be voters produce "a nondriver's identification card issued by" a "department, agency or office of any state."

Boutin said he believed the state university system is an agency of the state under the bill. Private student college IDs, such as for Dartmouth College, would also likely be allowed under his amendment, he said, but the decision would be at the discretion of the local elected officials at the polling place.

Leaving clear reference to students IDs in the law, he said, "might cause concern" among some Senate Republicans. "It's the art of compromise," he said. "I'm confident moderators will do the right thing."

As recommended by the committee Wednesday, the bill would repeal the moderators' discretion to authorize forms of identification they deem "legitimate" on Sept. 1, 2015 and revert to a strict, four-item list. But Boutin said that provision was an oversight and he will introduce a floor amendment when the bill goes to the Senate to make the moderators' discretionary authority permanent.

The committee's bill also puts off from Sept. 1, 2013 to Sept. 1, 2015, a requirement that photos be taken at polling places for those without IDs. The move puts off that requirement, strongly opposed by Democrats, until after the 2014 mid-term election but would have it in effect for the 2016 first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

Current law allowed for the 2012 election a list of seven forms of identification acceptable at a polling place, including a student ID, and absent any of those, verification of the person's identity by a local election official. If a voter was challenged, the voter would fill out a "challenged voter affidavit."

House Bill 595, as passed by the Democratic-controlled House, kept those seven forms of identification in tact and permanently eliminated the requirement that those without IDs have their photos taken at polling places.

Boutin's plan cuts the list to four items. It restores the photo requirement but puts it off for two years.

Sen. David Pierce, D-Etna, strongly opposed the Boutin plan, saying it "takes us backward, not forward."

"Current law expressly allows student ID," Pierce said after the vote. "I'd argue that the intent here was to take it out," which he said was politically-driven.

He said the bill "exponentially grows moderator power" and that removing student IDs as an acceptable form of voter identification has been the GOP's "long-held objective."

Sen. Bette Lasky, D-Nashua, agreed the bill "gives an incredible amount of discretion to moderators," adding that some forms of identification "may be acceptable in one ward but not in another.

Boutin acknowledged the amendment gives moderators "a lot of latitude," but he noted that anyone who does not present what the moderator views as an acceptable ID still can vote by filling out a challenged voter affidavit.

Still, said Lasky, the amendment "does create, in my opinion, additional barriers. It is unnecessary and could hinder a person's ability to vote."

It's part of an effort, Pierce charged, of "trying to pick our voters."

But Boutin called it a "good compromise" and said that if it is determined after the next election that additional changes are necessary, the Legislature can then address it.

"We want as many people to vote as humanly possible and I think this does that," said Boutin.

Each side produced letters from local elected officials to support their arguments.

Opponents of the Boutin amendment produced a letter from more than 30 local officials supporting passage of the House version, which said, "Since the object of the photo ID law is to connect a name and a face, we should continue to accept student IDs, state, county and municipal IDs, as well as photo IDs from local businesses, hospitals and other familiar institutions."

Boutin produced a letter from a vice president of the New Hampshire City and Town Clerks Association saying that while the group's official position is to support the House version, it also supports the Boutin amendment "as an alternative, best case scenario."

On the registration issue, current law says that in order to register, one must show that he or she is domiciled in New Hampshire. To do that, current law says, one must sign a form acknowledging that he is subject to the laws of the state, "including laws requiring a driver to register a motor vehicle and apply for a New Hampshire's driver's license within 60 days of becoming a resident.

The bill passed by the Democratic-controlled House removed that reference. The committee voted 3-2 to insert language saying that a person registering to vote must sign a form acknowledging that he is subject to the laws of the state, including laws that may require a driver to register a motor vehicle and apply for a driver's license within 60 days of becoming a resident.

The committee first rejected, also on a 3-2 vote, Pierce's proposed amendment that essentially restored the House version by removing the reference to motor vehicle laws, vehicle registrations and driver's licenses.

A Superior Court judge ruled last fall the reference to motor vehicle laws caused confusion and ordered the state to remove the language from voter registration forms before the 2012 general election. The case is still pending.

Pierce said he was told by the plaintiff's attorney in the case that keeping the reference to motor vehicle laws in the voter registration law, even while giving moderators more discretion on whether to refer to them through the use of the words "may require" does not resolve the issue before the court.

"That may be true," said Boutin, but he said he prefers to follow the advice of the Attorney General, "and if it is unacceptable to the court, we'll act on it next year."

The definition of "domicile" as reference in the voter registration form, was also at issue.

Current law says a domicile "is that place, to which upon temporary absence, a person has the intention of returning. By registering or voting today, I am acknowledging that I am not domiciled or voting in any other state or any other city/town."

Pierce proposed changing that definition to say, "A domicile is that place, more than any other, were I sleep most nights of the year, to which I intend to return after a temporary absence."

Pierce said it was meant to avoid confusion and use "colloquial" language, and that it was supported by the Attorney General's Office. But it was rejected, also on a 3-2, party line vote.

But Boutin disagreed, saying both the Attorney General and the Secretary of State's office approved the existing language in the law.

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters and the self-described "progressive" advocacy group America Votes charged that both Boutin amendments "target" and "disempower" young voters, including students.

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