Fate of voter ID compromise uncertain in Senate; conservatives urge rejection
CONCORD -- Conservatives Tuesday blasted the compromise reached by House and Senate conferees on reform of the state's voter identification law, calling it no compromise at all, but rather a GOP Senate cave-in to the Democrats in the House.
The fate of the compromise is unclear in the Senate, where sources said the 13-member the GOP majority caucus was split on the plan as of Tuesday afternoon. An indication of the split in the caucus was the fact that the compromise lost the support of Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett, who was a key member of the committee of conference and signed the compromise plan.
Boutin told the New Hampshire Union Leader said that since he signed the committee of conference report last Thursday, "new information," which he declined to detail, has been presented to him and, as a result, he said, he will not vote for the conference report in Wednesday's vote.
Boutin said, "During the committee of conference, there was a lot going on and it was a hurried process. Sometimes things get overlooked and new information comes forward.
"We need to hit the pause button on this," and continue to study it, he said. He said he now believes the current law should remain intact "for the time being."
If the committee of conference report passes the House and Senate Wednesday, it will go to Gov. Maggie Hassan.
Her spokesman, Marc Goldberg, said, "The governor continues to believe that the voter identification law enacted by the previous Legislature was misguided and should be fully repealed, but she appreciates that the compromise reached by the Legislature will save local communities the burden of costs for cameras, prevent long lines at the polls, and alleviate confusion about permissible forms of identification."
At a news conference featuring about a dozen conservatives, former House Election Law Committee Chairman David Bates, a Windham Republican and a key architect of the current law, said, "We are appealing to the (Republican) senators to support the law you passed last year."
But Bates, who did not seek reelection last November, said the changes agreed to by the Senate -- allowing student IDs as a valid form of ID for voting and putting off for two years a requirement that election officials take photos of challenged voters -- "unquestionably weaken" the current law, and "there is simply no reason to make any changes in this law."
He said the current law did not cause chaos in the 2012 election.
Despite "hysterical claims" that it would, said Bates, "the election went smoother than most people expected."
Bates said the current law, listing four forms of valid ID for voting, has a "fail safe" provision. Anyone without a valid ID can get one from the state Division of Motor Vehicles, or failing that, simply sign the affidavit.
He said it is untrue that the law "somehow disenfranchises students, the poor or the elderly," as opponents claim. Their complaints, he said, "insinuates that (some voters) are too stupid to sign a piece of paper. It doesn't seem like an ominous task.
According to Bates, the challenged voter affidavit process found that 1,784 verification letters were returned undeliverable, meaning that "more than 1,700 voters (from 2012) have just disappeared."
State Rep. and former House speaker Bill O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, said the current law remaining on the books "could be crucial" in determining the makeup of the House. He suggested that with more than 1,700 affidavit verification letters returned undeliverable and another than 2,400 simply not returned, it is possible that some House elections, often determined by very small margins, were determined by illegal voters.
"We're saying to the Senate, 'Stay with us. Stay on course here,'" O'Brien said.
He dismissed as "rhetoric" from opponents claims that some conservatives and Republicans are trying to keep students from voting booths because they tend to vote Democratic.
Jim Adams, president of Granite State Taxpayers, said the group "is not against college students voting" but charged Democrats want to "completely gut the law."
Democratic Rep. Gary Richardson, D-Concord, a key player on the committee of conference, disagreed.
"What's really going on here is students tend to vote Democratic, and this right-wing doesn't want to let them vote, Richardson said.
Richardson dismissed the suggestion of fraud in the 2012 election.
He said the election was in November while verification letters were sent to those who filled out affidavits in January.
"Students notoriously move around," he said. "They transfer. They graduate. To have election officials take photographs of people before there is any proof of any fraud whatsoever makes no sense. It's a wild goose chase.
"If there is proven voter fraud here, I would want to prevent that and do what we need to do, but there has been no proof of it whatsoever," said Richardson.
The presidents of the state's Young Democrats and Young Republicans issued a joint statement supporting the "common sense compromise."
"From the beginning of this debate, we have stood together in a bipartisan fashion to stand up for our students, regardless of their political affiliation or any policy disagreements that we may have," said New Hampshire Young Democrats' president Theo Groh and New Hampshire Young Republicans' president Jake Wagner.
"By ensuring that all students in New Hampshire, particularly those in private institutions like us, have the right to use their student photo ID, we are confident that our voting rights have been strengthened for the better by this crucial bipartisan agreement," Wagner and Groh said.
But Ashley Pratte, executive director of the conservative Cornerstone Research group, called the compromise "nothing short of deplorable.
"By watering down our voter ID law we are allowing for injustices and fraud to occur," Pratte said. "The senators on the committee of conference caved and allowed for high school and college photo identification as acceptable and in turn asked for nothing."
If the current law, passed by last year's GOP-controlled Legislature, is left unchanged, student IDs will no longer be valid as a form of ID for voting as of September of this year.
This year, the Democratic-led House originally restored all student IDs in its version of House Bill 595, but the Republican-controlled Senate removed them, effective Sept. 1, instead proposing to leave it up to local elected officials to judge whether forms of identification not specifically on a honed-down statutory list is legitimate.
Under the committee of conference agreement, the Senate agreed to allow New Hampshire-related student IDs in the law.
The amendment that will go to the full House and Senate for final approval Wednesday specifies that the "valid student identification card" must include a photo and be issued by "a college, university, or career school in New Hampshire and approved to operate or licensed to operate in New Hampshire."
The amendment also specifies that identification cards issued by the state university system and Dartmouth College are also acceptable.
Also acceptable under the proposal will be cards issued by any public high school in the state or non-public high schools "accredited by a private school accrediting agency that is recognized" by the state Department of Education.
In addition to student IDs, the proposal would continue to require a driver's license, an armed services identification card, or a United States passport or passcard.
The agreement also allows local election officials to verify the identity of any prospective voter who does not present a valid ID.
Any voter whose identity is challenged must fill out a challenged voter affidavit swearing to his or her identify. A requirement under the current law that local officials must take a photograph of anyone who does not present a valid ID and as a result fills out a challenged voter affidavit would be put off until after September 2015 under the committee of conference report.
But legislation is expected to be filed next year to remove the photo requirement permanently.
Reacting to the conservatives' news conference, New Hampshire Democratic Party spokesman Harrell Kirstein said, "Almost 100 days ago exactly national Republicans conducted an autopsy of their party and concluded that their attacks on young people were partly to blame. While they are now trying to etch-a-sketch some of their more out of touch positions, New Hampshire Republicans continue to double down on same failed rhetoric voters rejected last fall."