By Doug Ireland
---- — Many New Hampshire town clerks were relieved two years ago when the Senate sustained Gov. John Lynch’s veto of a controversial photo ID bill.
Some called the proposal “a nightmare” and said they were nervous about it becoming law. It wasn’t because voters would have to present an ID at the polls, but because those without identification could cast a provisional ballot.
But they had to return with identification within two and a half days. Town clerks said that would have created confusion and delayed election results — and they would be left dealing with the aftermath.
Last year, what the town clerks feared most became a reality.
New photo ID legislation — intended to prevent voter fraud at the polls — was introduced. The compromise bill that became law called for the photo ID requirement to begin during last fall’s presidential election.
It also required election officials to stop and photograph any voter without an ID, but not until elections after Sept. 1, 2013.
Near-record turnout at polls in November caused the kind of confusion many clerks dreaded for more than a year.
There were long lines and lots of questions as voters were asked to present IDs and many people were registering to vote for the first time. It followed a test run during the state primary in September when poll workers explained the new law to voters and told them what to expect in November.
But after town elections two weeks ago, Southern New Hampshire officials said they experienced no major problems. Most voters seemed to have adjusted to the new law, they said.
Though some voters still seemed confused in Newton, according to Town Clerk Mary-Jo McCullough. The voters had heard lawmakers were trying to repeal the photo ID law, so they weren’t sure if it was still in effect, McCullough said.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, especially since lawmakers last week took aim at the much-debated law. Regulations passed by a Republican-dominated Legislature a year ago came under attack Thursday in the Democratic-controlled House.
The House voted to repeal part of the law, including the provision that requires election officials to photographs voters who do not present IDs.
House Bill 595, sponsored by Rep. Lucy Weber, D-Walpole, now heads to the Senate. An attempt to kill the law all together failed.
Some town clerks were overjoyed Friday when asked about the House’s action.
That included Denise Neale of Derry.
“Yay!” she said.
Many have followed the voter ID legislation closely since it was first proposed.
Neale didn’t attend the House hearing Thursday but did listen to some of the testimony online.
Like many area clerks, Neale was concerned about having to photograph voters — especially since some who didn’t present IDs at the polls chose not to do so as a means of protest.
They could still vote if they filled out an affidavit attesting to their identity and later confirm they voted through the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office.
No election official wants do deal with an angry resident when there’s a line of people waiting to vote.
“Their feeling is it’s discriminatory as it is,” Neale said. “Let’s keep it simple.”
Kingston Town Clerk Melissa Fowler agrees voters will feel the process is invasive. So does Hampstead Town Clerk Patricia Curran.
“We had a few people who didn’t want to show a license,” Fowler said. “I can’t imagine they are going to want us to snap a photograph. ... “I think people might find that offensive.”
As for repealing that provision, “I wouldn’t miss it,” she said.
Curran said she thinks people will feel their privacy is being violated if they have to be photographed and have their picture kept on file.
“I would be happy to see that part of the bill (repealed),” she said.
The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women of Voters of New Hampshire are among the groups fighting for repeal.
Expensive to implement
One reason the provision has come under attack from some lawmakers is the projected expense. The secretary of state’s office estimates it would cost at least $81,675 to provide digital cameras and printers to polling places across New Hampshire.
Fulfilling the requirement would also cost an additional $10,000 a year in maintenance costs and more than $51,000 annually to employ a program assistant. The total cost of implementing the Voter ID Law is estimated at $450,000 over the next two years.
Curran said she’s afraid that at some point, communities would have to foot the entire cost of meeting the requirement.
“It would be an unfunded mandate,” she said.
Rep. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, was the sponsor of a bill last year that paved the way for the current law. This year, Prescott has sponsored Senate Bill 182, which delays implementation of the remaining ID requirements until Sept. 1, 2014.
That would allow for more study of how well the law has worked and provide more of an opportunity to educate election officials to ensure the smoothest transition possible, he said.
But for Weber, the sponsor of HB 595, there’s no need for the law, she said. That’s because voter fraud isn’t a big problem, she said.
“I want to be sure there is a real reason for it,” Weber said of the law.
But Weber proposed repeal of only part of the law because she was told there wasn’t enough support in the Legislature for complete elimination.
“Asking for a full repeal is not considered productive,” she said.
Weber is concerned the law will discourage people from voting if they have to wait to cast ballots.
“I think there is more of a risk of turning away properly qualified voters.”
Law receives support
Curran, like many town clerks, think the Voter ID Law is a good idea.
“I’m strongly in favor of the voter ID bill,” she said. “I think everyone should have to show their ID when they vote.”
Although she’s not worried about voter fraud in Hampstead, Curran said the law is effective.
Neale agrees — and so do many voters, she said. Many are happy to show their IDs, happy they are preventing potential fraud, Neale said.
“The first time we did it in September for the primary, people would say, ‘Thank you, for asking,”’ she said.
Curran said the law helps to safeguard the democratic process.
As Hampstead grows, it’s become increasingly difficult to get to know every voter and be sure someone else isn’t voting in their place, she said.
“There is no way we are going to know everyone on that checklist,” Curran said. “It’s not the small town it used to be.”
Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, is a firm believer in the law and a harsh critic of Democrats such as Weber seeking its repeal.
Eliminating the law would be a huge mistake, he said.
“The Democrats are blindly thinking that everyone and anyone should vote,” he said. “It sets a bad precedent.”
Like Curran, Baldasaro said as communities grow, it’s more difficult to know who in town is voting legally and who is not.
“It’s not like it was years ago when everyone knew each other,” he said.