Politics

New Hampshire Students Say They Were Illegally Turned Away From The Polls

CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

A voter marks a ballot for the New Hampshire primary inside a voting booth at a polling place Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Manchester, N.H.

PLYMOUTH, NH — Plymouth State senior Jack Swymer headed to the polls around 11:30 a.m. to cast a ballot for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). He tried to take advantage of the state’s same-day registration process, but a poll worker told him that since he didn’t have a proof of his residence, he couldn’t vote.

“I live off-campus, and the bills are in my roommate’s name,” he told ThinkProgress. “I wasn’t familiar with all the voting laws, so I just did what the poll workers’ advice because I figured they knew what they were doing.”

It turns out, they did not.

Smymer, who grew up in New Hampshire and now studies graphic design, left the polling place dejected, assuming he couldn’t vote, when he ran into a team of volunteers from the non-partisan environmental organization NextGen. They informed him of his right under the state’s new voter ID law to vote by signing an affadavit, and he went back in and demanded one.

“All I wanted to do is vote,” he said. “It’s important for everyone to vote, but especially students. We are the future, and our voice should be heard.”

As hundreds of thousands of New Hampshire residents cast their votes today in the nation’s first presidential primary, voting rights organizers feared that the state’s newly implemented voter ID law would create confusion, long lines, and cases of voter suppression — especially impacting New Hampshire’s younger voters.

Some of those fears have been confirmed. Sites across the state reported long lines, with voters stuck in traffic and waiting more than an hour to cast a ballot.

Organizers with NextGen who monitored the polls in the northern college town all day Tuesday told ThinkProgress that Swymer was just one of many students illegally turned away without an affidavit.

Manchester resident Hannah Bristol, the youth vote director for NextGen, said she witnessed several troubling episodes. “We’ve had kids who were told they couldn’t vote with an out-of-state drivers’ license when that’s not true. They weren’t being offered an affidavit unless they specifically requested one,” she said. “We also helped a student who is a U.S. citizen adopted at a young age from another country. He had his student ID but they demanded to see his passport or naturalization certificate. I consider that serious racial profiling, since they didn’t ask any white students to prove their citizenship, only people with accents or who have brown skin.”

After helping these voters exercise their rights, Bristol and her coworkers reported these incidents to the state Attorney General’s office. They said the office dispatched an employee to Plymouth to monitor the situation and remind the poll workers that they are obligated under law to offer affidavits to every voter without an ID. After that, the students said, things drastically improved and no more people were improperly turned away.

ThinkProgress reached out to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office for confirmation but did not receive a response.

Katrina Meyers, a recent graduate of Plymouth State who now works for NextGen, said the students she saw improperly turned away from the polls were “extremely distraught.”

“When I saw that voter suppression going on, people were really upset, and didn’t understand why they been told they couldn’t vote,” she said. “Because we were there to educate them, they went back and did cast ballots, but they shouldn’t have been turned away in the first place. It’s their right.”

Bristol added she was worried that the experience would deter the affected students from voting in the future.

“It’s disheartening to see students having a hard time voting, especially when students don’t usually turn out in high numbers,” she said. “Voting is a lifetime habit, and we need to encourage everyone to start young.”

Another barrier, she noted, was the location of the polling place, about a mile and a half away from campus. With temperatures below freezing, it would be difficult to walk, so she and her fellow organizers have been giving students rides to the polls all day long. Those who had cars drove, creating a traffic jam on the city’s narrow streets. At the polls themselves, first-time voters doing same-day registration created a long line.

Freshman Tyrell Hardy, who studies environmental science, told ThinkProgress he waited 45 minutes to register and vote. He ultimately cast a ballot for Sanders.

Yet in New Hampshire’s other college towns, things appeared to be going more smoothly. Joan Flood Ashwell with the New Hampshire League of Women Voters monitored the polls in Durham all Tuesday, where thousands of University of New Hampshire students cast ballots. She told ThinkProgress that only seven people did not have an ID, and had to fill out an affidavit and have a poll worker photograph them. Two of those people did so in protest of the law, while the rest genuinely lacked a proper ID.

UPDATE FEB 16, 2016 12:15 PM

The Attorney General's office confirmed to local press this weekend that some student voters were initially turned out without just cause. Plymouth's town clerk told reporters that the poll worker who turned the students away made a "mistake" and was "devastated" about it. They said all students who wanted to were eventually able to vote.

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