On the trail: Sununu warms to widespread absentee balloting during coronavirus crisis

  • New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner looks over polling data from the Primary in his office at the State House on Wednesday morning, February 12, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

For the Monitor
Published: 4/10/2020 3:02:53 PM

New Hampshire’s Republican governor says he’ll allow widespread voting by absentee ballot in the state’s September primary and November general election if the coronavirus pandemic’s still a health threat later this year.

“Basically if you feel more comfortable voting absentee because of the outbreak or your inability or nervousness about just appearing in person to vote, you can vote absentee and obtain an absentee ballot,” Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday during a daily briefing on the state’s efforts to combat the coronavirus crisis.

The popular governor who’s running this year for a third two-year term steering New Hampshire said that the state is also considering other ways to cast a ballot, including “drive-up voting.”

More details on how the process would work was expected from the state Attorney General’s office.

Longtime New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner told the Monitor that the state’s current law would not have to be altered to allow for an increase in absentee balloting in the state primary and general election.

“If what exists right now exists in September and November,” Gardner said that no person would have to cast a ballot in person. “They would not have to go to the polls.”

“We are preparing for an election existing under current circumstances” Gardner added. He said that could mean up to 90% of voters using the absentee ballot route.

The move by Sununu is a departure from his past stance opposing widespread absentee voting. Last year he vetoed a bill passed by the Democratic controlled state legislature that would have allowed all residents to vote by mail regardless of reason.

Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – currently vote entirely by mail. A majority of states now allow for no-excuse absentee balloting – but New Hampshire is one of nearly 20 states that does require voters to provide a valid excuse to vote by absentee ballot.

Earlier this week Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky made another push for no-excuse absentee balloting.

“I’ve long supported the idea that all eligible voters should be able to cast a ballot by mail. Now that COVID-19 is challenging all of our institutions, it’s clearer than ever that no-excuse absentee voting by mail is the safest way to cast a ballot,” the Concord Democrat – one of the two Democrats running for their party’s gubernatorial nomination in hopes of challenging Sununu, wrote in an op-ed earlier this week.

New Hampshire Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, the other Democratic gubernatorial candidate, pushed for a comprehensive approach in an online post earlier this week.

“We cannot solve the problem overnight simply by relaxing absentee ballot requirements. We need a comprehensive review of the voting process from voter registration to casting a ballot, and we need it as soon as possible,” Feltes said.

Trump turns up the volume

The position by Sununu – who’s a supporter of President Donald Trump and has a strong working relationship with Vice President Mike Pence – stands in vivid contrast to the vehement opposition by the president in recent days to allowing widespread voting by mail and absentee balloting.

The President’s turned up the volume on his opposition to expanding voting by mail and absentee ballots as a way to minimize health risks posed by voting in-person during the pandemic.

“Mail-in voting is horrible. It’s corrupt,” the president argued during Tuesday’s daily Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the White House.

Trump then suggested that “you get thousands and thousands of people sitting in someone’s living room signing ballots all over the place … I think that mail-in voting is a terrible thing.” But the president didn’t offer any evidence to back up his claim that voting by mail is rampant with fraud and abuse.

The president’s comments follow a similar attack on voting by mail he made last week, when he claimed that “a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting.”

“It shouldn’t be mail-in voting,” Trump added. “It should be: you go to a booth and you proudly display yourself.”

The charges by the president are his latest claims – disputed by critics and opponents – regarding voter fraud, which he insists kept him from winning the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election. While Trump crushed Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College vote to win the White House, the Democratic nominee topped Trump by nearly 3 million votes in the national popular count.

One of the states where he claimed there was voter fraud was New Hampshire, a perennial general election battleground which Clinton won by less than 3,000 votes in the 2016 presidential contest.

The summer after the 2016 general election, Sununu signed into law a bill – officially known as SB3 – that tightened voter eligibility restrictions that was passed by the state legislature which was controlled at that time by Republicans.

That bill – which restricted out-of-state students attending college in New Hampshire from registering to vote unless they have a permanent state address or driver’s license – was struck down on Thursday by a superior court judge following a long legal battle. State officials may appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The broader battle

With the coronavirus outbreak forcing social distancing and keeping most Americans in their homes in hopes of preventing a spread of the deadly COVID-19 disease, the Democratic presidential nomination calendar has been upended, with many states delaying their remaining primary elections or transforming them nearly entirely to voting by mail and absentee balloting.

Among the states moving to the vote-by-mail option is Ohio. The state’s in-person voting – which was scheduled for March 17 – was scrapped at the last minute due to coronavirus health concerns.

Under a bill passed by the state’s legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, postcards are being sent to every registered voter to explain how they can obtain a vote-by-mail application. Ballots must be postmarked by April 27 to be counted. The state will allow an extremely limited group of people – mostly disabled voters – to cast a ballot in person on April 28.

But this week in Wisconsin, the state’s conservative-dominated Supreme Court squashed a primary eve move by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to delay in-person voting in Tuesday’s election and move to absentee balloting due to grave coronavirus health concerns.

Separately, the Republican-nominated justices on the U.S. Supreme Court won out over the Democratic-nominated justices in a 5-4 ruling Monday evening, preventing a one-week extension of voting by mail in Wisconsin’s primary.

The partisan fight in Wisconsin the past few days is an initial skirmish in the broader battle between Democrats and Republicans over expanding voting by mail for November’s general election.

Former Vice President Joe Biden – in an MSNBC interview last week – predicted “there’s going to be a great deal more absentee balloting” in the general election. And on Tuesday the all-but-certain Democratic presidential nominee emphasized in a “Today” show appearance that it’s time to start looking into what it “would take to have voting by mail.”

The $2 trillion economic stimulus package passed by Congress and signed into law by the president two weeks ago – which aims to help workers, small businesses and large companies devastated by the shutdown of much of the nation’s economy due to the pandemic, as well as provide aid to hospitals on the front lines in the crisis – also included $400 million to help states move toward mail-in voting.

Senate Democrats had pushed for $2 billion in election funding, with House Democrats angling for double that amount. Congressional Democrats say they’ll work to increase funding in the next stimulus package.

A study from the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice released last month spotlighted sweeping changes to current voting practices across the country – such as universal mail-in voting, ballot drive-by drop off boxes from coast to coast, and easier online voter registration – to make voting in November safe. Their price tag to implement the changes was $2 billion.

The push by Democrats will face plenty of opposition from the president and Republicans, who’ve long opposed moves to expand voting by mail and early voting by arguing that it invites voter fraud. Democrats – pushing back on such arguments – say that cases of actual voter fraud are limited and claim that Republicans are trying to suppress voter turnout to improve their chances of winning elections.

The president on Wednesday took to Twitter to emphasize that “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

And last week the president claimed during an appearance on Fox News that a vote-by-mail proposal by House Democrats would have ensured no Republicans would ever be elected again.

Biden called the argument by Trump “absolutely ridiculous.”




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