Lawmakers, Secretary of State seek to iron out COVID-19 absentee ballot process

Monitor staff
Published: 6/27/2020 5:27:57 PM

Weeks after a lengthy commission and exhaustive debate, lawmakers and the Secretary of State’s office say they’ve come up with a process for voting in New Hampshire during the coronavirus.

But it’s not going to be effortless.

Voters will be allowed and encouraged to vote by absentee ballot to avoid going to the polls – an option usually reserved for specific circumstances. Getting the state’s potential voters familiar and comfortable with the new process, however, will take new levels of outreach.

Under the new process, voters looking to avoid polling locations will need to know how to register to vote by mail, apply for an absentee ballot by mail, and turn that ballot in properly. For many, it’ll be their first experience with the process. Town officials and the Secretary of State’s office are prepping for a surge.

On Thursday, a key state Senate committee hammered out legislation that could make it easier.

An amendment to House Bill 1266 recommended by the Senate Election Law Committee Thursday would allow voters to register to vote and apply for an absentee ballot for both the Sept. 8 state primary and the Nov. 3 presidential election. The bill will receive a full hearing and vote in the Senate on Monday.

“The result of this is it’s going to be helpful to the voters in terms of making it a little easier for them,” said Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan in testimony Thursday. “It will certainly help streamline the process for town clerks, and will give the moderators the flexibility that they’re going to need when it comes time to actually process the absentee ballots.”

The proposed bill would provide the means for towns to begin partial processing of absentee ballot information several days before the election, allowing them to expedite what could turn into a paperwork slog this year. Town officials would not be able to tally the vote itself – or see it – before Election Day.

The bill would also allow those who choose to show up at the polls to request to have their necessary registration documents delivered outside the polling station by one of the town election workers.

And it would require a dedicated box on the absentee ballot – and the application to get the ballot – stating that the voter is “unable to vote in person due to concern for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).”

New Hampshire voters already can vote absentee due to fears of the coronavirus, after a legal interpretation from Attorney General Gordon MacDonald allowing voters to clam a “disability” if their absence was COVID-19-related.

But that approach, which relies on voters checking a specific box, attracted criticism in past weeks from voting rights advocates for being potentially confusing for voters.

And disability groups had objected to the use of the disability exemption as a catch-all for a pandemic-related decision.

“What we heard in our testimony was that people … felt like they would be lying to say they were disabled because they were concerned about COVID, and in the disability population, they were saying that’s not a disability,” said Sen. Tom Sherman, a Rye Democrat who is vice chairman of Senate Election Law committee and sat on the Secretary of State’s advisory committee. “It’s not the correct use of the term.”

Many of the concerns were ironed out through the Secretary of State’s Select Committee on 2020 Emergency Election Support, a panel of stakeholders that met regularly in the past two months and that produced a report earlier this month outlining recommendations for COVID-19 election procedures.

However, the absentee voting process will still require voter to take initiative. In order to receive a ballot, each voter must apply for one on paper, by printing out an application form and mailing it in. Those without access to printers can call their town clerk’s office to request one be mailed to them. Registration would need to be handled similarly.

Sherman said that committee members are urging the Secretary of State’s office to use Every Door Direct Mailing, a U.S. Postal Service program that could allow those application forms to be widely distributed to households. But he acknowledged that it had its shortcomings; without pre-knowledge of the number of people per household, one application per address would likely be insufficient.

The legislative package passed Thursday includes another feature: dual applications. If signed into law, the bill would allow voters to use one application to apply for both the September primary and the November general election.

“I call it one-stop shopping,” Sherman said. “...The beauty of that is it saves clerk time, postage, and it also makes it easy for the voter to sign up for the absentee process.”

Meanwhile, Gardner’s office has proposed making some changes on its own. The office has hired an accounting firm to make sure it spends the $3.2 million it received from Congress correctly. That will allow it to use the money to help cities and towns reimburse some of the costs of the absentee ballots.

The Secretary of State’s office is also planning to provide personal protective equipment like masks and face shields to poll workers and voters, the office said in a note attached to the report.

And it plans to “expand messaging with voters” on the process via social media and mail campaigns.

“We will be working closely with local election officials to develop procedures that will protect both poll workers and voters while recognizing that each polling place is unique,” Gardner wrote in a letter attached to the June 5 committee report.

But the advisory committee’s report goes beyond what the Secretary of State’s office has volunteered it will do. Key among the recommendations: using federal funds to pay for pre-paid postage to accompany all absentee ballots, removing a potential barrier for some voters. That could ultimately cost as much as $415,000, the committee said in its report.

Meanwhile, all sides are pushing for increased visibility of the new procedure. That includes establishing a special hotline in the Secretary of State’s office to guide interested voters through each steps.

Thursday’s committee vote was a 4-1 vote, with Republican Sen. Regina Birdsell, of Hampton, supporting, and Sen. James Gray, a Rochester Republican, opposing.

Gray argued that the legal changes were not necessary and that the current processes, with direction from the Secretary of State could suffice. Gray added that he didn’t anticipate the surge in election participation this year to be great enough to warrant the extra measures.

Still, final negotiations over the package carried out with the cooperation of the governor’s office and Secretary of State, and Sherman said he was confident that the final suite of recommendations would be embraced by them.

“There’s nothing compelling them to do anything,” Sherman said. “But I think from my discussions with Bill Gardner and Dave Scanlan, they get it.”


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