Electoral Radar

This could be the end for same-day registration

illustration by peter noonan

New Hampshire is known around the world as the place that kicks off America’s presidential election.

We also provide an element of surprise. Recall LBJ’s slim win here in 1968 that convinced him to not seek another term. Ronald Reagan’s comeback in 1980. Hillary Clinton’s shocking win over Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary.

Even in our data-rich age where most variables can be quantified and calculated, when pollsters and analysts talked about the New Hampshire primary, they had to offer a number of disclaimers. New Hampshire voters have long been notoriously fickle, even changing their minds about candidates in a single weekend, and, in the last 20 years, there has been an electoral process in place that has created more uncertainty.

Not only can our so-called independent voters choose either a Democratic or Republican primary ballot, even non-registered voters can show up on election day and pick up a ballot. In recent years this group has made up about 10 percent of the electorate, a large enough number to sway elections in a swing state like ours.

This spring there is an effort underway to get rid of the state’s same-day registration, and those efforts may be successful.

First, some background: In 1993, the Republican Legislature and Republican Governor Steve Merrill passed a bill allowing for same-day voter registration as a way around a new national voter registration law that tied federal funds to the ability of voters to register at their local DMV. Republicans said DMV registration would be too expensive to administer, and local town clerks didn’t like the idea of ceding some control of their town’s voter rolls.

The 1990s were also when Democrats began winning races in the state for the first time in a century. Beginning with Jeanne Shaheen’s election as governor in 1996, Democrats won 9 of 10 elections for the corner office and today, for the first time in history, New Hampshire’s entire congressional delegation is Democratic.

Many local Republicans saw a correlation between same-day voter registration and Democrats winning. Enough believed that there was widespread abuse of this system that a myth was born — a myth that has persisted despite every election official saying that it wasn’t true. The myth even inspired newly elected President Donald Trump to claim that he lost New Hampshire in the general election because out-of-state residents took advantage of the state’s same-day registration laws. While people might be able to point to one or two cases of such fraud in an election, the New Hampshire Secretary of State and the New Hampshire Department of Justice, which prosecutes that crime, both say there is no evidence this is true.

Now, Republicans want to pass a law that wipes out same-day registration and requires new voters to be New Hampshire residents for at least 13 days. Such a requirement is very much in the mainstream nationwide. More than 40 states have a registration deadline of at least 20 days prior to the election.

Leaving aside the pros and cons of doing away with same-day registration, the political implication is that elections will be less of a surprise. The universe of potential voters will be known in advance.

New Hampshire’s elections and presidential primary will likely remain strong if same-day registration stays or goes. But there might be less reason to stay up late hoping for an upset from voters who weren’t on anyone’s radar.

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