My Turn: Please don’t confuse voters, Secretary Gardner

For the Monitor
Published: 8/7/2020 1:23:52 PM
Modified: 8/7/2020 1:23:42 PM

Dear Secretary of State Gardner: I’m sure that you want Granite Staters to be able to vote safely this fall, which for many people, like me, will mean voting from home (absentee).

And I’ve heard you say time and again that if a single qualified voter fails to have their vote count because of faulty procedures, that’s one voter too many. So I’m at a loss to understand the confusing and sometimes inaccurate election-related messaging coming from your office, which could deter and potentially disenfranchise voters.

In April, in conjunction with the attorney general, you issued guidance that any voter with COVID-19 concerns can legally vote absentee under the “disability” category.

However, many people expressed reluctance about claiming to be disabled for voting purposes, since this is not the generally understood meaning of the word and they didn’t want to sign what seemed to them to be a false statement.

The Select Committee on 2020 Elections unanimously recommended that the “Absentee Ballot Application” be revised to expressly list concern about COVID-19 as a justification for voting absentee, in order to relieve people of this worry. A law to that effect was passed, and the application was revised accordingly.

Unfortunately, although representatives of your office attended the select committee’s meetings, it appears that no one brought to the committee’s attention another document that also needed to be changed.

I just received my absentee ballot and noticed that the “inner envelope,” which will hold the completed ballot, requires a signature attesting to one of two reasons why I can’t vote in person: 1) I’ll be out of town, or 2) I can’t vote in person because of a religious observance or physical disability. Concern about COVID-19 is nowhere to be seen.

I’ve heard that you’re advising people in my situation to sign the statement claiming to be disabled, relying on your original guidance defining “disability” to include concerns about COVID-19. However, that advice is neither on the envelope nor in the ballot instructions. What is on the envelope is a bold-print threat of jail time and heavy fines for anyone providing false information.

Many voters, faced with this threatening language but afraid to vote in person for health reasons, and without further official guidance, might choose not to vote at all.

Meanwhile, the “outer envelope” that’s provided for returning the ballot is oversized and contains the following sentence, where the stamp should go: “This envelope may require additional postage.” Why not simply state the actual cost of postage, either on the envelope or in the instructions? People voting absentee specifically to avoid public places shouldn’t have to go to the post office to figure this out.

Finally, despite recent revisions to your website, it continues to contain some inaccurate and confusing information.

For instance, although the site links to a document correctly explaining that people can register to vote from home if they have concerns about COVID-19, a separate page indicates that disability and absence are the only justifications for doing so. There is similar mixed messaging about absentee voting. Some of the linked documents, such as the one explaining how to prove domicile and the application for an absentee ballot, contain legalistic and convoluted language that is difficult to understand. Areas of confusion such as these stand as barriers to voting.

With our primary election just a month away, I’m troubled that you have not yet fixed these and similar problems. If your office truly wants to ensure that every person qualified to register and vote has the opportunity to do so, and if you want to be the “trusted source” for election information that you claim to be, then please, without further delay, make your website and the materials you offer to voters comprehensible, correct, and complete.

Voting in a pandemic is likely to bring many confusions that we can’t control; we should at least eliminate the ones that we can.

(Mary Wilke lives in Concord.)


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