My Turn: Policy change would create chaos at the polls

Last modified: 4/18/2015 1:03:03 AM
Since the House vote on the state budget, significant attention has rightly been paid to decisions by the Republican majority to cut funding to social service programs, reduce scheduled payments to municipalities and raid dedicated funds to pay for operating expenses.

What hasn’t received much attention is an ill-conceived policy change that would place new financial and logistical hardships on already overburdened election officials, violate the privacy rights of voters and all but guarantee a patchwork, unequal application of our election laws from one polling place to another.

Under a provision of New Hampshire’s photo ID law scheduled to take effect later this year, voters who show up to the polls without an approved photo ID are required to have their picture taken by an election official.

In an attempt to satisfy privacy and equal protection concerns for voters, the law enacted in 2012 contained specific requirements on how the picture-taking provision would be implemented. The election moderator or designee is required to take a photograph of the voter, “immediately” print and attach it to the voter’s affidavit form, and then delete the photograph from the camera in the presence of the voter.

To satisfy article 28-a of the New Hampshire Constitution, which requires new mandates on political subdivisions to be fully funded by the state, the Secretary of State is required to provide each city and town with photography equipment and printing devices, along with instructions for their use in carrying out the picture-taking operation. The cost to equip each polling place with the necessary cameras and printers is estimated to be about $137,000 statewide.

When putting together their state budget proposal for this term, the Republican majority decided that they didn’t want to pay for the equipment. Given that no compelling evidence had been presented to justify moving forward with photographing voters, the prudent action would have been to simply repeal the provision, or delay its implementation, as the Legislature did in bipartisan fashion last term. House Republicans instead chose to take a different approach – keep the requirement but remove the funding.

In addition to being a clear 28-a violation, failing to fund this new mandate promises to make a mockery of our election day procedures. When questions were raised regarding privacy and equal protection rights of voters, Republican lawmakers brushed them off as no big deal because cellphone cameras have become so prevalent. Their solution: just snap a picture with an election official’s phone, send it to a town-owned printer, hit delete and call it a day.

While that proposal contains more problems than can possibly be addressed here, such a response shows that Republican lawmakers have little concern for the privacy rights of voters. Despite the express requirement that the photo be deleted in the presence of the voter, failing to include proper controls makes it impossible to confirm that the law is actually being followed.

Use an older iPhone, for instance, and deleting a photo actually removes it from the phone. Deleting a photo from an iPhone with iOS 8, however, doesn’t actually delete it. It is simply sent to a “deleted photos” folder where it can be restored for up to 30 days. How are voters supposed to know what kind of phone or software is being used, or if the phone is set to automatically send data into the “cloud” where it will be available for hackers to steal in perpetuity?

Logistical problems at the polls were met with similar disregard. Polling places run by older volunteers unfamiliar with new-age technology? Rep. Dan McGuire, an Epsom Republican, suggested on the House floor that kids be employed to assist in the process. Rural areas without reliable cell service to transfer the photo? Never addressed by the Republican majority.

This proposal contains such serious privacy concerns for voters, and so many logistical problems for election officials, that it never should have even seen the light of day. Before the budget is finalized in June, the Legislature should repeat the wise action of last term and again delay implementation of this unnecessary policy.

(Rep. David E. Cote of Nashua is the current ranking Democrat and former chairman of the House Election Law Committee.)

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