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GOP-backed voting law lands in the laps of courts, clerks
  • Updated

Now that Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has signed a bill into law creating a special “affidavit ballot,” it will be up to local election officials to make it work and to the courts to determine if it’s even legal.

Keene City Clerk Patricia Little said the law, which goes into effect in 2023, will slow the vote count and create other challenges to a system that has traditionally operated smoothly.

“It will definitely have an impact,” she said Monday. “I’m a little disappointed the governor signed it, but he did, and we’ll have to make the best of it.”

Under Senate Bill 418, which Sununu signed Friday, election officials would give affidavit ballots to people who register to vote on election day without proper identification.

Poll workers would keep these ballots separate from others so that these votes can be subtracted from election totals if the voter doesn’t provide the proper ID in seven days.

Currently, voters can sign an affidavit attesting to their qualifications and then can cast their votes. A post-election verification investigation can take place regarding these voters, but in any case, their votes stand.

Secretary of State David Scanlan suggested before SB 418 was approved that lawmakers might want to ask the N.H. Supreme Court about its legality, but he has also said it would work.

Proponents of the bill say it will ensure unqualified voters don’t get to fraudulently participate in elections, many of which are determined by close margins. Opponents said there’s no evidence of significant fraud that would justify changing the system in ways that could violate the N.H. Constitution.

The ACLU of New Hampshire filed a lawsuit in Hillsborough County Superior Court South against the measure on Tuesday, alleging it would unconstitutionally diminish voting secrecy by tying voter names to affidavit ballots.

“The government should not know who you cast your ballot for in a state election — that’s why SB 418 is an unconstitutional infringement on the right to privacy,” Henry Klementowicz, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of New Hampshire, said in a written statement.

“Voting is one of the most important democratic things a person can do, and they deserve to do so privately and secretly.”

Election officials would maintain a list of those who voted by affidavit ballot, so that these votes could be subtracted later if proper ID were not provided. Opponents of the bill say that by matching these names to the corresponding ballots someone could theoretically find out how these people voted.

The 603 Forward and Open Democracy Action nonprofit groups as well as other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in the same court over the law on Friday, alleging it puts up obstacles to voting and violates a provision in the N.H. Constitution that requires municipal clerks to report election results to the state within five days.

Under the new law, municipalities would have 14 days to report vote totals after subtracting affidavit ballots in cases where voters never supplied the necessary ID.

Delays in knowing the results in primary elections will lengthen the time needed to create the general election ballot and get it out to residents outside the country.

“Due to the law’s lengthy certification process, overseas voters, including military voters, will not receive their absentee ballots in a timely manner, threatening their ability to have their votes returned and counted,” the lawsuit filed Friday says.

Federal law requires ballots to be mailed to military voters 45 days before a federal election.

“That means that local election officials are required to mail general election ballots to military members only a few days after, and possibly even before, primary election results are certified under SB 418,” the lawsuit says.

“This creates an impossible task for local election officials and may ultimately restrict our armed service members from casting their ballots.”

Little, the Keene city clerk, said an advantage of the present system is being able to quickly identify election outcomes after the vote. She also wonders how election recounts will fit into the new law.

Across the city of Keene, about 50 people tend to vote without proper documentation in a national election, she said. About 13,000 Keene residents voted in the November 2020 general election.

Little questioned the need for creating a new voting system.

“There have been instances where someone voted in their hometown and then voted in another community, but those instances would be in the single digits statewide,” she said, pointing out that this would be a felony.

A total of 814,499 votes were cast in New Hampshire in 2020 compared to 755,850 in 2016.

Sununu and other state officials have said New Hampshire has an accurate and honest election system, despite claims by former President Donald Trump that fraud led to his defeat in the state in the last two general elections.

“The New Hampshire Secretary of State is the foremost authority on our state’s elections, and he has given me his full assurances that this bill does not affect the state’s ability to get military ballots out on time, and that our processes will work without delay or impediments with its passage,” Sununu said in a statement after signing the bill.


Local
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With music and arts festival in Swanzey, Northlands kicks off next act
  • Updated

The Northlands Music & Arts Festival will kick off its inaugural year Friday and Saturday at the Cheshire Fairgrounds in North Swanzey.

The festival will feature 15 performers across two stages. The lineup includes American rock band Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, New Hampshire reggae/rock artist Joe Samba, jazz/hip hop band Lettuce, and more. The full schedule is listed on the festival’s website.

“We’ve curated a fantastic diversity of genres, basically an entire season worth of dynamic bands and lined them all up for one fantastic weekend of music,” Northlands Director Seth McNally said in a news release.

Hayley Jane and the Primates, an Americana, soul, and rock and roll band, will reunite at Northlands for the first time since its hiatus in 2019, McNally said. The band is slated to take the stage on Saturday from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.

Festival-goers will also have the chance to see Melvin Seals Grateful Revue, a band McNally said was put together exclusively for Northlands. The band includes a collection of artists organized by Melvin Seals, member of the Jerry Garcia Band.

In addition to live music, attendees can see installation and performance art ranging from “stretched fabric canopies to wooden sculptures to huge murals being painted live during the festival,” said Mike Chadinha, Northlands’ director of operations, in the news release.

People can also visit 15 craft artists and vendors and eat from more than a dozen food trucks.

Updated

All production crews and food and craft vendors will be from the area, fulfilling the festival’s mission of being an “economic driver for the local economy,” according to the release.

Northlands is partnering with SAVRcup to carry out a sustainability initiative that includes eliminating single-use plastics from the festival and heightened recycling efforts. Festival-goers can buy a reusable cup for $4 and refill it as needed throughout the festival, McNally said. The purchase comes with a $1-off coupon for their first drink.

On-site camping options are available, sold separately from festival passes. Campers will have access to exclusive activities, including early-morning yoga at the start of each day and silent discos from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. both nights, according to McNally.

General admission and VIP passes are also available on the festival’s website. VIP passes include access to a VIP-only lounge tent, private bar, a viewing area close to both stages, and more.

The Northlands Music & Arts Festival grew out of a pandemic-era series of drive-thru concerts that were held at the Cheshire Fairgrounds in 2020. Last year, it was rebranded to Northlands with about 30 concerts held in “socially-distanced pods,” McNally said.

The 2021 concerts included a partnership and donation to Music Drives Us, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting and providing access to music education opportunities throughout New England, according to the organization’s website.

Northlands will have a charitable component again this year, to be announced after the festival’s conclusion, McNally said.

Although Northlands was unable to do a full season of shows due to other events being held at the fairgrounds, McNally said this year’s festival was a “perfect opportunity” to hold Northland’s first multi-day festival.

General admission prices start at $79 for a one-day pass and $20 for a kids pass (ages 4-12).

More information about Northlands’ inaugural festival can be found at www.northlandslive.com.


State_news
YDC abuse cases:
Lawyers for hundreds of former YDC residents ask for abuse cases to be heard

Attorneys representing nearly 600 former Youth Development Center residents in abuse claims against the state have asked a judge to move forward with litigation on 450 of those cases. They say their clients are proceeding with their lawsuits because they continue to distrust the settlement option offered by the state.

The request comes as the Attorney General’s Office prepares to seek approval from the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee for its draft guide for compensating victims.

The proposed rubric calls for paying victims of some types of rape $200,000, while awards for physical abuse range from $2,500 to $50,000. Payments would be further determined by frequency of the abuse and number of perpetrators involved, according to the draft. And “aggravating factors,” such as a rape that leads to pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease, would also enhance payments, the draft states.

But a law passed this year caps how much victims can receive. No one can receive more than $1.5 million, whether they’ve been sexually or physically abused or both. A victim of physical abuse could receive no more than $150,000. In total, the law sets aside $100 million to compensate victims.

The rubric casts in stark terms the brutality of abuse hundreds of men and women said they experienced while held at the former youth center.

Jennifer Ramsey, senior assistant attorney general, said those guidelines were based on settlements in other cases in and outside New Hampshire, and may change based on feedback from victims, their attorneys, and victim advocates. The intent, she said, is to help victims decide whether to pursue the settlement or a lawsuit. Nearly 600 have chosen the latter.

“To the extent that we had to put numbers to specific types of harm, that was done in an effort to give people some certainty to what they might hope to recover so they could make an informed choice going in,” she said.

In their filing last week, attorneys David Vicinanzo and Rus Rilee asked Merrimack County Superior Court to lift a pause it put in place last year while the court decided how to handle so many cases. Vicinanzo said they are hoping for a decision during a case status meeting next week.

“Plaintiffs acknowledge that the state’s delay strategy and its related goal — paying as little compensation to as few victims as possible — is legally allowable to a certain point,” they wrote. “But that point has come and gone. After decades of suffering in silence, it is time for plaintiffs to be heard and receive justice.”

In the coming weeks, Vicinanzo said he and Rilee will file 150, possibly 200, additional lawsuits in Hillsborough County Superior Court alleging abuse at the former youth center.

Vicinanzo, as well as state and national child advocates, warned lawmakers this year that victims would be unlikely to pursue the settlement process, faulting the caps as arbitrary and too low, and criticizing the exclusion of emotional and non-contact sexual abuse. They’ve also criticized how much time the state is giving victims to request a settlement — between Jan. 1, 2023, and Dec. 31, 2024. They say it is too little time.

Vicinanzo and the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said they were not asked for input on the draft compensation rubric or proposed settlement guidelines before they appeared on the Department of Justice’s website this month.

Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the coalition, said some victims are unhappy about the way awards are calculated.

A victim who receives $20,000 for a single instance of sexual abuse would not necessarily receive $40,000 for two instances of sexual abuse or $60,000 for three, according to the draft rubric. Instead, the victim would receive something between $20,000 and $60,000 as determined by a complicated “frequency multiplier” established in the draft guidelines.

“For sexual abuse, add the number of instances of the most severe level of abuse suffered plus one-half the number of instances of the two next lower levels of abuse suffered,” it reads. “Instances of abuse three of four levels lower, if any, shall not be counted.”

Grady Sexton said, “We’ve heard concerns from victims and their attorneys that under this draft proposal, the more you were abused, the less each incident of abuse is worth.”

Ramsey said the state’s intent is not to minimize victims’ experience or trauma or undervalue their injuries.

“I think this process provides a nice alternative for people who do not want to go through all of the discovery of the legal process: trials, depositions, all the things that are usually associated with litigation,” she said.

Ramsey said the state hopes to settle cases between 60 days and nine months, far less time than a court case would likely require. “It’s premised on the idea that the purpose of this is to verify a claim, and it’s not to resist a claim,” she said.

Victims who have already filed a lawsuit can file a claim as long as they agree to pause the lawsuit while they are discussing a settlement with the state. If they dislike a settlement offer from the Attorney General’s Office, victims have three choices: try to negotiate for a higher amount; ask the settlement administrator to choose an amount that resolves the difference; or withdraw their claim and resume their court case.

It remains to be seen how many victims will pursue the settlement option. While Vicinanzo and Rilee say their nearly 600 clients will not, there may be hundreds more who will.

“I think getting this process up and running and making it as welcoming as possible can be a way to find that out,” Ramsey said.


Wapo
Supreme Court
Analysis: Supreme Court opens the door to more public funding of religious schools

The case of Carson v. Makin, in which the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, concerns an unusual school voucher program with about 5,000 students in parts of Maine so rural that there are no public high schools. But the consequences of the decision are likely to be broader, offering more legal support for religious institutions, including schools, seeking public funds.

Two Maine families had sued after the state said they could not use public tuition assistance to send their teenagers to Christian schools. The high court ruled in their favor, telling Maine it could not exclude religious institutions from the program because that was discriminatory, violating the Constitution’s free-exercise clause.

Despite its limited impact, the decision marks a victory for proponents of school privatization and school choice. In the past year, they have successfully lobbied state legislators to create or expand programs that send taxpayer dollars to private schools. These come in a variety of forms — and put taxpayer dollars directly in the hands of parents, who can choose what kind of education they want for their children.

“This ruling affirms that parents should be able to choose a school that is compatible with their values or that honor and respect their values,” Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for EdChoice, said in a statement. “By shutting out parents with certain values, that’s discrimination run rampant.”

“Faith-based are really critical to their success because they have a very proven track record of educating disadvantaged kids,” Hiner said.

Legal scholars and advocates say the case itself will have little immediate impact, but they worried the case signals that the court will continue to open the door for religious institutions, including schools, to access public funds.

“Overall this is a deeply disappointing decision that further erodes the separation of church and state,” said Daniel Mach, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union’s program on freedom of religion and belief.

The decision follows a string of rulings that have favored religious institutions seeking public dollars. Two decades ago, the court ruled that tuition voucher programs could be used to help students attend religious schools, partly because it was the parent, not the state, making the decision to send them there.

Then, in 2017, the court ruled in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church, which sought a state grant from Missouri to repave the playground at its day care. And last year, the court sided with parents in Montana who wanted to use the state’s tuition voucher program to send their children to Christian schools.

Public school advocates worry that funding for school choice programs cuts into budgets for traditional public schools.

“If this means that states will now be encouraged to put into place voucher schemes, then that could be a challenge in the future, and the issue of course would be the price tag for voucher schemes,” said Francisco Negron of the National School Boards Association.

There are also concerns over whether the civil rights laws that apply to public schools extend to private schools that receive public funds. In the Maine case, for example, one of the Christian schools bars gay and transgender students and teachers, a practice that would violate federal law if enacted in a public school.

Legal scholars anticipate that, at some point, the court will have to decide whether religious charter schools are permissible. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed, including by religious organizations that deliver nonsectarian instruction during the day but provide religious after-school programs.

Courts continue to grapple with whether charter schools are truly public schools and subject to the same civil rights laws, which would preclude the creation of religious charter schools.

A recent ruling spoke to that question: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit recently held that a charter school’s gender-based dress code, requiring girls to wear skirts, was unconstitutional — just as it would have been at a mainstream public school.

In the 2017 Trinity Lutheran case about religious schools that score state funds, Justice Sonia Sotomayor had worried that the majority was leading Americans “to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment.” On Tuesday, in a lone dissent, she wrote that now “the Court leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.”


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