Town clerks seeing record requests for absentee ballots

  • Chichester Moderator Ewen MacKinnon holds a box filled with absentee ballots with Town Clerk Evelyn Pike at the town offices on Thursday, October 15, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Chichester Moderator Town Clerk Evelyn Pike puts the absentee ballots back under lock and key at the town offices on Thursday, October 15, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Chichester Moderator Town Clerk Evelyn Pike puts the absentee ballots back into a box, which will be stored under lock and key until they can be counted on election day.

  • Epsom Town Clerk Laura Scearbo loads absentee votes back into a file cabinet at the town offices on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Chichester Moderator Ewen MacKinnon moves box filled with absentee ballots with Town Clerk Evelyn Pike at the town offices on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 10/16/2020 3:15:32 PM

People like Evelyn Pike have big responsibilities. More than usual.

She’s Chichester’s town clerk and tax collector, serving for 34 years and counting. Pike coordinates the voting effort, and this year she says residents seem more passionate than ever about one simple fact:

”People want to make sure their votes are counted,” Pike said.

An obvious point, indeed, but it says a lot, that trust in the system is waning, divisiveness in America is growing, and citizens feel more compelled than ever to make a change or continue the status quo, using, of course, a fair method to tabulate votes.

But there’s more. These days, because of COVID-19, lots of seniors are voting or planning to vote via absentee ballot because they fear the coronavirus, meaning that seldom-used system has gone mainstream and clerks need to adapt. 

Pike is expecting to receive eight to 10 times as many absentee ballots than usual.

Pike said she usually receives about 50 requests for absentee ballots during a general election season.

“About 400 this time,” she said, her tone matter of fact because she’s grown accustomed to something she’s never seen before. “People are worried about COVID and long lines. They say they’re worried about their ballot and will it be counted. They hear so much press on TV, and I try to tell them that your vote counts. In New Hampshire, it is safe.”

The issue has been part of the campaign landscape forever. President Donald Trump doesn’t trust mail-in voting, saying it’s rigged and unsupervised. Democratic challenger Joe Biden says Trump is stirring up trouble to cast doubt on the election in case he loses.

When you research this stuff, you discover that mail-in voting and absentee voting are virtually the same things, a few town officials told me. Some states allow mail-in voting to everyone, making the absentee ballot application obsolete.

Some states allow absentee voting, but only by request, and only with a valid reason showing why someone can’t get to the polls.

Most red states don’t want mass mail-in campaigns, following their leader. Many blue states want them, in step with Biden.

Some Democratic voters fear their ballot won’t be delivered by mail before the election and their choice won’t be counted. Some Republican voters worry that some of those absentee ballots will be sent in with the names of make believe people as part of a massive fraud effort to elect Biden. 

Local clerks are there to maintain calm.

“People come into the town hall and bring me their ballot because it’s a small town and they can just drive by,” Pike said. “It gives them more confidence because I’m at the window and they can just hand it to me.”

She continued: “They want their vote counted, and so we’re getting an abundance of new voting, people who say they’ve never voted before and they want to vote now. That shows they weren’t interested before, and now they’re interested, and that’s all ages.”

Pike said the community feel, the camaraderie, the opportunity to catch up with neighbors will be lost on election day next month, as more people than ever vote by absentee ballot.

She said primary day last month was stressful after officials had to move voting from the town hall to Chichester Central School to improve social distancing.

And she said she overhears political commentary when people come in for information.

“Every town clerk hears those comments,” Pike said.

In contrast to Pike, who’s been a town official since the Reagan years, Laura Scearbo is a rookie town clerk in Epsom.

She has no basis for comparison when it comes to voting tendencies, but says, “I feel everyone wants to do an absentee ballot. We have 400 who have applied, and that seems like a lot. We’ve gotten 100 back so far.”

Scearbo said that the town hall has been hectic lately, that people have stopped by – two at a time only –and there are more phone calls.

“A lot of people who have not voted in a while are double-checking to see if they’re registered,” Scearbo told me. “I’m prepared for last-minute voting. I expect it to happen, so I’m mentally prepared for it.”

Voters can submit their absentee ballots personally until 5 p.m. on Nov. 2 at the town office. They can walk in that day, register, receive a ballot and then hand it right back to Scearbo, bypassing snail mail. They could also hang on to it one more day and deliver to the polls on election day.

The former town clerk, Dawn Blackwell, said 400 requests for absentee ballots was off the charts. She had never seen anything like that during her 22-year tenure.

“The most requests I had was 200, and that was during the last (presidential) election,” she said.

For Blackwell, timing was everything. Her retirement had been planned for 65, when her Medicare kicked in, and that was this year.

She trained Scearbo, saying she was a fast learner, deserving of re-election next March. Her final day coincided with the start of the state-wide quarantine. Back in March.

Before anyone really knew what had hit them.

“We closed the office just before I retired, and I felt bad leaving her,” Blackwell said, referring to Scearbo. “I don’t know what she’s going through, but I can only imagine.

“I’m just glad I’m not there.”

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