March 18, 2017
By John DiStaso
MANCHESTER, N.H. — A national progressive issues advocacy organization has begun a paid digital ad campaign focusing on key New Hampshire Senate supporters of legislation to substantially tighten the state’s voter ID and registration process.
Priorities USA, a pro-Democratic group, is launching ads on social media sites Twitter and Facebook urging voters to tell the Republican-controlled state Legislature to defeat Senate Bill 3, which it views as a restrictive “voter suppression” bill.
The state Republican Party quickly responded to the ad campaign with criticism of its own of Priorities USA.
WMUR.com first reported details of the bill on Feb. 23 in an interview with the chief sponsor, Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead. Additional details were reported when the bill was formally released on March 3.
The bill was heavily criticized as too restrictive and complex during a lengthy public hearing before the Senate Election Law and Internal Affairs Committee on March 7. It does, however, have the support of the state’s top election official, Democratic Secretary of State William Gardner.
According to Priorities USA, when New Hampshire voters who visit the social media sites click on the ads, they will be directed to contact information for key state Senate backers of the bill. The ads asks voters to call them and urge them to defeat the bill.
The ads target GOP state senators Birdsell, the author of Senate Bill 3 and chair of the Senate Election Law and Internal Affairs Committee. Also targeted are the two other Republican members of the committee, vice chairman Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester, and Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford. Gray and Sanborn are cosponsors of the bill.
The ads say: “Tell (Senator Birdsell/Senator Gray/Senator Sanborn) SB3 = Voter suppression.”
According to Priorities USA, the ad campaign is timed to “ramp up pressure” as the election law committee prepares to vote Tuesday on a recommendation on the bill to the full Senate.
Patrick McHugh, executive director of Priorities USA, told WMUR.com: “There has been such an outpouring of grassroots activity against this bill, it appears to have even taken its sponsors aback. We want to help empower and inform even more Granite Staters about this harmful proposal because it is clear that the more voters learn about it, the more intense the opposition becomes.”
UPDATE: Responding to the ad campaign, NHGOP senior adviser Patrick Hynes said: “Hmmm — liberal Democrats from outside New Hampshire trying to influence the outcome of our democratic process. Sounds familiar.”
“The truth is, New Hampshire Republicans should be applauded for taking steps to protect the integrity of the ballot. No one but the most liberal of activists oppose measures to ensure the people who vote in New Hampshire are domiciled here. Under current law you can vote here with little more than a promise that you intend to live in New Hampshire.”
“There’s a legitimate debate as to whether that is sufficient. But all we get from the left is histrionics and hyperbole,” Hynes said.
Late Friday, Sanborn also reacted to the ads by Priorities USA.
“It comes as no surprise that a George Soros-funded, ultra-liberal, out of state extremist group that prides itself in trying to manipulate our elections is taking exception to the New Hampshire Senate working for the New Hampshire people, to insure that those who have a long term stake in our electoral process are the ones voting on New Hampshire issues,” he said.
“We have long recognized that out-of-state liberal groups like this continue to take advantage of current lax New Hampshire voting s laws. The people of New Hampshire overwhelmingly support, in a bipartisan manner, that commonsense measures are needed to insure that New Hampshire people are voting on New Hampshire issues.
“This bill being worked on in the New Hampshire Senate will insure that we support and encourage every New Hampshire eligible voter to have open, accessible access to voting in our elections,” Sanborn said.
Birdsell responded to the criticism on Saturday. She said she did not look at the ad, but said, “It’s disappointing that they would spread fear, but we can’t dictate what outside groups do. We all feel that this is a really good bill. We’re going to continue working on some of the issues that were addressed in the hearing. And we’re just going to move forward.”
National group focuses on voting rights
Priorities USA is known nationally for its focus on voting rights. A related organization, Priorities USA Action, was the top super PAC supporting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. In 2012, it supported then-President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
During the 2016 presidential race, Priorities USA Action reportedly raised nearly $200 million for Clinton’s campaign, the most ever raised by a super PAC.
The super PAC recently relaunched with the hiring of Clinton’s former national press secretary, Brian Fallon, as senior adviser and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ former press secretary, Symone Sanders, as a strategist for communications and political outreach, according to The Hill, a Washington-based publication and website.
Separately, Priorities USA said that in the 2016 cycle, the nonprofit arm of the organization spent more than $17 million nationally in support of lawsuits and grassroots campaigns against what it considered restrictive voting measures.
“Priorities has pledged to continue the work in 2017, including by engaging at a grassroots level as measures are considered in state legislatures across the country,” the group said.
One of the more controversial features of Senate Bill 3 would have local law enforcement officers visit the addresses of people who did not present positive ID of their domiciles when they register to vote on Election Day. The officers, or local election officials, are required under the bill as it is now written to verify that the domicile addresses given by the voters are legitimate.
That provision of the bill calling for police officer visits is not expected to remain in the bill, however. Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley confirmed to WMUR.com this week that he expects it to be removed before the committee votes on the bill on Tuesday.
Other aspects of the bill have also come under criticism, including what critics consider complicated wording of a proposed new voter registration form and a provision that would make voters subject to the state’s wrongful voting statute if they fail to present documentation verifying residency by deadlines laid out in the bill.
Among the chief critics is the New Hampshire office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
UPDATE: Following WMUR.com’s initial report on the ad campaign, Priorities USA said in a press release:
“Senate Bill 3 would make it more difficult to vote in New Hampshire by altering the voter eligibility criteria in a way that would suppress votes, confuse the voting process, and discourage new state residents from registering to vote in the first place. It would require voters to provide documentation proving their intent to establish a domicile in the state and empower the police to visit homes and fine citizens who cannot do so.
“These new domicile requirements also exclude residency at New Hampshire colleges and universities, effectively disenfranchising students.”
But Birdsell has called it a “trust, but verify” bill.
“It basically says that you can’t just have it in your head that you are domiciled in the state for the purpose of voting. It has to be coupled with a verifiable act or acts carried out with that intent,” she said during the public hearing.
The bill also has Gardner’s support. He said during the hearing that it is the “best way to balance that you want as many people as possible to be able to vote, and on the other hand, you want a process that a lot of people trust and believe is working, is right and technically secure.”
Gardner called Senate Bill 3 a “balancing act of security versus ease” and stressed that the bill does not stop anyone who goes to the polls from voting.
Priorities USA said that last month, it publicly urged voters to call New Hampshire House Speaker Shawn Jasper’s office about voting rights.
“But this is the first paid media activity Priorities is undertaking in the state in 2017,” the group said.