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Capital Beat: Talk of election complaints touchy subject in State House

  • The State House dome is seen on Nov. 18, 2016, as the restoration project nears completion. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz



Monitor staff
Saturday, November 26, 2016

Don’t suggest voter fraud in front of Senate President Chuck Morse.

The Salem Republican became agitated in budget meetings last week when the deputy attorney general requested a full-time employee to help investigate a growing backlog of open election law complaints.

“I don’t understand why it’s coming out today,” Morse began, his voice rising. “I have been assured by the secretary of state that our elections are good and clean. I wouldn’t want the press to know anything different.”

But the information Ann Rice presented last Monday should be nothing new to lawmakers.

It has long been reported that the AG’s Office has just one part-time attorney dedicated to election law and that some complaints languish for years without action.

Lawmakers get regular updates about the backlog. Since 2013, the legislature has mandated the attorney general provide a report every six months about the status of election investigations.

The most recent – released on Sept. 1 – shows that roughly 50 election law complaint investigations remain open. They range from allegations of push-polls to wrongful voting. More than a dozen of the complaints date back to 2012.

“Unless we can get someone who is dedicated to elections enforcement, the kinds of protections that are in our laws really are a false promise to our citizens,” Rice said while presenting the office budget request. “We simply can’t make sure that people are complying with these laws.”

Morse was not pleased. “I want to hear why we are bringing up right now that our elections are tainted at all,” he said. “I certainly haven’t heard of it, and to bring it up today, I think is wrong.”

The backlog of election complaints is not equivalent to rampant voter fraud, as Rice said in the meeting. It means the Attorney General’s Office can’t keep pace with the incoming complaints.

The issue is one the Senate tried to solve earlier this year. In February, members debated and then voted down two bills that would have funded a new position.

One proposal, from Concord Sen. Dan Feltes, would have imposed a sliding fee on candidates and political committees that spend more than $5,000 in an election. The proceeds would have helped cover enforcement costs.

Another bill would have allowed citizens to file campaign finance complaints with the ballot law commission, a group in charge of resolving recounts and determining candidate eligibility. It failed on a voice vote.

“We can’t say we are against voter fraud and then allow the situation to exist where we don’t go after it,” the bill’s sponsor, Democrat David Pierce, said then.

The September AG report shows that some investigations were not resolved until long after the election ended – which doesn’t offer much help to voters or candidates seeking timely relief.

Democrat Patricia Martin filed a complaint two months before the 2014 election raising concern about an anonymous website that advocated her defeat for state representative.

“It was really ugly, nasty stuff,” she said. “I don’t think it did me all that much harm. I have no way of knowing.”

It was six months after Martin’s loss in the general election that the AG’s Office sent a cease and desist letter asking a Rindge man to take down the website that was in violation of state election law.

New Hampshire scored an “F” in “electoral oversight” from The Center for Public Integrity in 2015. The review found campaign finance violations here can go largely unnoticed. The AG’s Office has the ability to independently review the records, but rarely does unless a complaint is lodged, the report found.

It means the system heavily relies on the public or interested parties to scout out violations and then report them.

“The reports ought to be looked at, the campaign finance reports, the receipts and expenditures,” said Secretary of State Bill Gardner. “We get them, but we don’t have the enforcement authority.”

More than a decade ago, a staffer split her time between the Secretary of State’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office and reviewed complaints, Gardner said. The recently proposed position will be one to follow through the budget process.

House vote

At least one of the state’s two Democratic representatives will back Nancy Pelosi in her bid to remain House minority leader.

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster said in a statement Pelosi is in the best position to “unite Democrats and oppose attempts to restrict women’s access to reproductive healthcare, privatize Social Security, Medicare, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and roll back environmental protections. I appreciate her proposals to create more opportunities for new members to contribute in leadership roles.”

Carol Shea-Porter didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Pelosi’s status as House minority leader is being challenged by Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan.

The California Democrat has led the caucus for 14 years, leading to some concern her tenure is shutting out younger members from leadership positions. Others say the group needs to be more inclusive of midwest voices, where Donald Trump made significant gains.

The vote is Nov. 30, the same day New Hampshire House Republicans pick their leader.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)