By Cole Caviston, Staff Writer
It has been a week since Election Day and while the campaign fanfare across the University of New Hampshire campus has faded, questions remain about the conduct of which student political groups acted.
For the past few months, the signs of campaign workers from campus political groups encouraging students to register to vote were a common sight across campus, the fervor of which increased as the election season was underway.
Whether stationed near entrances to the Memorial Union Building (MUB) with clipboards and pamphlets, chalking sidewalks advertising the Election Day date or setting up booths in Union Court or across from Dimond Library, they were an unavoidable presence.
“Almost every person I walked past yelled something at me, even though I clearly wasn’t interested,” sophomore Audrey Johnson said. “Do you want a poster?’ ‘Want some candy?’ ‘Need a ride to the polls?’ ‘Did you vote?’
“I almost had an anxiety attack because there was no way to get away from them, no way to get them to stop,” she continued. “They were relentless. I’d sent in my absentee ballot weeks before — I just wanted to get some dinner.”
One of the most noticeable groups that encouraged voter registration up to Election Day was the Next Generation Climate Action Committee (NextGen), an environmental Super PAC founded in 2013 by hedge fund manager Thomas Steyer.
The group describes itself as a “non-partisan organization focused on bringing climate change to the forefront of American politics,” but a contrast overview by FactCheck.org labels the group as politically leaning towards the Democratic Party and liberal candidates.
Scheduled appearances on campus by Democratic candidates Jeanne Shaheen and Carol Shea-Porter and Republicans Scott Brown and Frank Guinta were arranged by student political organizations. Alexander Fries, the president of the UNH College Republicans, believed these events were essential towards introducing the candidates to voters.
“Something extremely unique about this election cycle that many enjoyed was the opportunity to not only meet top-of-the-ticket candidates, but being able to talk to them about issues important to students,” Fries said. “Over the course of the entire election, we tried not to be overbearing when reaching out to students, no matter if in casual conversation or while tabling in the MUB.”
Fries claims that the College Republicans did not participate in such “overbearing” tactics he alleges were used by other student organizations.
Fries said, “Something I was appalled by, personally, was how students were harassed on Election Day right outside of Holloway Commons by several groups, some of which seemed to be student orgs, others outside groups made up of mainly paid employees.”
Campaign canvassing was not absent from student dormitories either, but for Milan Sands, the resident director of Hetzel Hall, it was initially only a mild presence.
“I wouldn’t say [there was] too much, aside from a few posters,” Sands said. “There was really no physical presence, aside from the posters on bulletin boards for both candidates.”
But the day before the election, Hetzel Hall was heavily canvassed by student activists from the Jeanne Shaheen campaign and NextGen. Political flyers, mostly from the Shaheen campaign, and NextGen cozies were pushed under student doors on every floor.
“People were patrolling the buildings and sliding flyers from Jeanne Shaheen and the environment [group],” Sands said. “At some point, they gave up because they left a pile of about 30 [leaflets] found in stairwell.”
Jamison Couture, a resident assistant (RA) for Hetzel, received several complaints from floor residents about leftover leaflets; the residents were “significantly annoyed” by the litter.
“The night before, there was a ton of people walking through, sliding things under doors and making a mess,” Couture said. “There were members of that Next Generation climate group that were also going to the other dorms.”
He even recognized a friend — a member of NextGen among a group that Couture said was distributing material. According to Couture, he did not know that his friend or the group he was with was distributing the materials.
“One of my friends walked by, but when they walked by they hadn’t done anything yet,” Couture said. “I thought that he was maybe visiting a friend in the dorm. He didn’t give anything to me, so I didn’t know that he was soliciting items.”
According to Sands, the entry of political groups is a violation of the policy banning anyone from entering student dorms where they are not a resident without express permission, as laid out in the UNH Room and Board Agreement.
“It’s against university policy for anyone on their own accordance to espouse political literature or any type of advertising and to enter a building to solicit that information,” Sands said.
It is also required that political groups that wish to distribute political literature have to gain the permission of the hall director. Any form of advertising within student dorms has to be approved by the office of housing and residential life.
The flood of political soliciting led Sands to consult the hall director Facebook page to find out whether other halls were experiencing similar problems. He soon found that hall directors from Scott, Stoke, Fairchild, Engelhardt, Hubbard and the Upper Quad were also reporting unauthorized access to their dormitories by political groups.
According to Sands, one hall director was told that the group largely responsible for these flyers was the UNH College Democrats, who did not respond to requests to interview for this article.
While Sands said that he and the RAs in Hetzel did not witness any of these groups in actions, he said that similar groups were approached by hall directors and asked to leave the dorms.
No charges have been made against any of these groups, but Sands states that Residential Life is “aware” of their activities.
Students living off campus felt the effects of political campaigning as well.
“I think it’s really important to get students involved in the democratic process, and even more important to educate them on the politicians, issues and current events,” senior Chris Carroll said. “But I think the process by which the student campaigners are going about it is underhanded. The campaigners were largely associated with the Democratic Party, and as such they didn’t just encourage students to vote. They tried very hard to influence how the students voted, which kind of undermines the logic.”
Carroll said that the political push was to get students to vote — regardless of how informed they were about candidates.
“Encouraging students to vote to exercise their right, but then persuading them to vote a certain way by blatant advertising and plastering posters and fliers everywhere isn’t advocating for the freedom to vote,” he said. “It is exploiting the very weakness the campaigners claim to be fighting against, voters’ ignorance.”
Carroll said that he heard stories of several students who were told to vote despite their desire not to, and he heard the story of a student who was told it would be okay to vote domicile — until it wasn’t.
“I personally know a student who, after claiming Durham as a domicile in the Presidential election, the state of New Hampshire told him he had to claim residency in New Hampshire within a certain number of days, as well as register any vehicles,” Carroll said. “He had been told that he wouldn’t have to change anything and that is was temporary. He was mislead, and he almost got in legal trouble.”
Carroll’s problem with the campaigners is not just from hearing stories or from analyzing the campaign’s agendas. Overall, he says it’s not good taste to campaign the way people have been campaigning at UNH, at least for the Nov. 4 election and the last presidential election.
“The campaigners wield a two-faced agenda: They promote voter awareness and then try to influence the voter and exploit their ignorance,” Carroll said. “And it’s worth noting the democratic campaigners got paid significantly well for it, as I was made aware by one of the campaigners I’m familiar.
“The shuttle bus is a very good idea, except for the huge promotion that gets plastered on the sides of them. … That kind of advertising is just plain vulgar and in terrible taste.”