Taking sides in a partisan political battle isn’t something typically expected of public bureaucrats. Thus, it might seem surprising that the administration at Keene State College recently stepped into the fray between Democrats and the governor over the state’s new laws redefining residency. Or, at least, college leaders sidled into the fray, taking a stand with students protesting the laws and backing a bill to undo at least one of them.
The laws, of course, really have little to do with figuring out who lives in New Hampshire, and everything to do with who gets to vote here. Since Gov. Chris Sununu took office, he’s signed two such measures passed by Republican majorities in the Legislature, posited as efforts to fight voter fraud, something rarely seen in New Hampshire.
The first, Senate Bill 3, passed in 2017, set up a confusing set of roadblocks to newly registering voters, along with hefty penalties if they don’t provide proof of being a state resident within 30 days of voting. The second, House Bill 1264, was passed last year and signed by Sununu who, after vowing “I will never support anything that suppresses the student vote; end of story,” did exactly that by refusing to veto HB 1264.
That law, slated to take effect July 1, redefines “residency” and “domicile” to effectively force college students and other new or temporary residents to register vehicles or provide other proof that they intend to live in the state permanently. Despite a state Supreme Court ruling, 3-2, that the law is not unconstitutional, its intent has clearly been, from the start, to discourage college students from out of state from registering to vote here, and it imposes a cost to those who do so.
Both SB 3 and HB 1264 are being challenged in court. In the meantime, since Democrats took over both the House and Senate last November, new legislation is being considered that would reverse the language change made by HB 1264. House Bill 106 passed the House and is now before the Senate, which is expected to also approve it. It would then go to Sununu for a signature.
All of the votes taken on these various bills thus far have been wholly partisan: Republican lawmakers, who say college students don’t agree with their priorities and who would like to see fewer of them casting votes, support the new restrictions. Democrats, who tend to benefit from college-age votes, argue it’s suppression, and oppose them.
The furor over the moves has undoubtedly struck a nerve with young voters. The N.H. Youth Movement, NextGen NH and N.H. Young Democrats have been rallying support among college-age voters — and not-yet voters — to support HB 106. One of those events took place last week in Concord, where as many as 100 rallied to protest HB 1264, and 10 were arrested holding sit-ins at Sununu’s office and that of Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who has also supported the changes. Two of those arrested are Keene State students.
Administrators at the state’s public colleges are undoubtedly in a weird spot regarding this debate. Usually, there’s little to be gained for someone paid with public money and appointed by those who are, in turn, appointed by elected politicians. At the same time, decisions made in Concord often affect their institutions.
At a recent Keene State rally organized by the N.H. Youth Movement, college President Melinda Treadwell took such a stand. Youth Movement Director Dylan Carney says Treadwell first agreed to speak at the event, but ultimately sent another administrator to give a statement.
Said Kim Schmidl-Gagne, of the Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, at the event: “When you have an institution that’s committed to civic engagement, it’s our responsibility to encourage everyone to think about what these issues are and try to find ways to make it easier for our students to vote.”
That might not sound like a call to arms, but it’s worth noting the Youth Movement has tried to get the president or other administrators at UNH to endorse the cause, and they’ve declined, saying they don’t want to get mixed up in a partisan issue.
This issue, however, is more than just politics to Keene State, something Treadwell and Schmidl-Gagne no doubt realize. At a college competing for students and trying to regain lost enrollment, the last thing Keene State needs is for prospective students and their families to have reason not to enroll here. Having state officials go out of their way to make clear those students’ right to vote isn’t of value to them is such a reason.