By Peter Wallsten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; A01
New Hampshire's new Republican state House speaker is pretty clear about what he thinks of college kids and how they vote. They're "foolish," Speaker William O'Brien said in a recent speech to a tea party group.
"Voting as a liberal. That's what kids do," he added, his comments taped by a state Democratic Party staffer and posted on YouTube. Students lack "life experience," and "they just vote their feelings."
New Hampshire House Republicans are pushing for new laws that would prohibit many college students from voting in the state - and effectively keep some from voting at all.
One bill would permit students to vote in their college towns only if they or their parents had previously established permanent residency there - requiring all others to vote in the states or other New Hampshire towns they come from. Another bill would end Election Day registration, which O'Brien said unleashes swarms of students on polling places, creating opportunities for fraud.
The measures in New Hampshire are among dozens of voting-related bills being pushed by newly empowered Republican state lawmakers across the country - prompting partisan clashes akin to those already roiling in some states over GOP moves to curb union power.
Backers of the voting measures say they would bring fairness and restore confidence in a voting system vulnerable to fraud. Many states, for instance, do not require identification to vote. Measures being proposed in 32 states would add an ID requirement or proof of citizenship, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
"I want to know when I walk into the poll that they know I am who I say I am and that nobody else has said that they are me," said North Carolina state Rep. Ric Killian (R), who is preparing to introduce legislation that would require voters to show a photo ID at the polls.
Democrats charge that the real goal, as with anti-union measures in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere, is simply to deflate the power of core Democratic voting blocs - in this case young people and minorities. For all the allegations of voter fraud, Democrats and voting rights groups say, there is scant evidence to show that it is a problem.
"It's a war on voting," said Thomas Bates, vice president of Rock the Vote, a youth voter- registration group mounting a campaign to fight the array of state measures. "We'd like to be advocating for a 21st-century voting system, but here we are fighting against efforts to turn it back to the 19th century."
The debate over voter fraud has become a perennial issue since the contested 2000 presidential election. While limited by federal law and court rulings, states have authority over how they run elections. Although elections officials say there are occasional cases of fraud, experts say the battle lines are drawn largely along deeply partisan - and largely theoretical - lines.
"Election policy debates like photo ID and same-day registration have become so fierce around the country because they are founded more on passionate belief than proven fact," said Doug Chapin, an election-law expert at the Pew Center on the States. "One side is convinced fraud is rampant; the other believes that disenfranchisement is widespread. Neither can point to much in the way of evidence to support their position, so they simply turn up the volume."Implications for 2012
The disputes are taking on national implications. Several states where newly empowered Republicans are pushing voter legislation, such as New Hampshire, Wisconsin and North Carolina, are expected to be battlegrounds in the 2012 presidential race. Democrats say the voters most likely to be affected are core pieces of President Obama's base.
An analysis by the North Carolina State Board of Elections showed that any new law requiring a state-issued ID could be problematic for large numbers of voters, particularly African Americans, whose turnout in 2008 helped Obama win the state.
Blacks account for about one-fifth of the North Carolina electorate but are a larger share - 27 percent - of the approximately 1 million voters who may lack a state-issued ID or whose names do not exactly match the Division of Motor Vehicles database. The analysis found about 556,000 voters with no record of an ID issued by the DMV.
Republican lawmakers in North Carolina had pledged to make a photo ID bill a top priority for their new majority, but they have yet to release a plan, with the caucus deliberating over how restrictive it should be. The issue could present a dilemma for Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, who would have to choose between signing or vetoing a bill that would be popular with swing voters but that could dampen turnout of voters she needs to win reelection next year.
In Wisconsin, a photo-ID bill backed by the state's new GOP majority would not permit voters to use school-issued student cards. The measure would allow for other IDs, such as passports, but opponents say thousands of students who do not have Wisconsin driver's licenses or passports would face unfair hurdles that would keep many of them from voting.
Republican state Sen. Mary Lazich, who heads the chamber's elections committee, said the legislation is designed to prevent irregularities, such as allegations that votes have been cast by the deceased. She said she hoped to work with university officials to allow student IDs at some point.
Student groups are rallying opposition, distributing fliers on campuses and creating Facebook pages to pressure lawmakers.
"It's no coincidence that some of the groups being targeted and that would be most affected by the bill are more Democratic generally," said Sam Polstein, 19, a University of Wisconsin sophomore from New York who is helping to organize the protests.
Opponents are also using a tea party twist - cost - to try to defeat the bill.
States that require voter IDs also must be willing to pay for them, the result of a court ruling that declared part of Georgia's ID law unconstitutional because people lacking IDs would have to pay for cards themselves - creating, in effect, a poll tax. A legislative analysis shows the Wisconsin measure would cost the state $2.7 million a year.
The Wisconsin bill is poised for passage in the state Senate but is stalled because of the legislative standoff between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and state Senate Democrats over his plan to roll back public-sector unions' collective-bargaining rights.
The outcome could be particularly critical in Wisconsin. Though Obama won the state easily in 2008, strategists in both parties expect his reelection contest to be much closer. In 2004, the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), won there by just 11,000 votes, a margin easily covered just by the 17,000 out-of-state students who attend the University of Wisconsin's campus in Madison.New Hampshire bill
In New Hampshire, the measure that covers college students also targets members of the military who are temporarily stationed in the state. But there are no major military installations there, and GOP lawmakers have reserved their criticisms for the voting behavior of students - leading even some college-age Republicans to fight back.
"There's no doubt that this bill would help Republican causes," said Richard Sunderland III, head of the College Republicans at Dartmouth College. But, he added, "this doesn't help if the Republican Party wants to try to win over people in the 18-to-24 age range."
After posting O'Brien's comments about college students on the Internet, state Democratic Party officials accused the GOP of pushing the legislation to rig elections. Voting rights advocates have noted that the courts have affirmed the rights of students to vote where they live.
A spokeswoman for O'Brien said he had not endorsed specific legislation but had spoken out in favor generally of tightening state voting laws.
Same-day registration "coupled with a lax definition of residency creates an environment in which people may be claiming residency in multiple locations," O'Brien said in a written statement from his office. He added that changing the law "is not an idea targeting any particular political party or ideology."
Still, the sponsor of the measure, state Rep. Gregory Sorg, addressing a packed public hearing room late last month, focused his ire directly at the college set.
Average taxpayers in college towns, he said, are having their votes "diluted or entirely canceled by those of a huge, largely monolithic demographic group . . . composed of people with a dearth of experience and a plethora of the easy self-confidence that only ignorance and inexperience can produce."
Their "youthful idealism," he added, "is focused on remaking the world, with themselves in charge, of course, rather than with the mundane humdrum of local government."