My Turn: Voters shouldn’t need an excuse for mail-in ballot

For the Monitor
Published: 9/11/2019 8:00:14 AM

Democracy thrives where many participate. So, removing barriers to participation encourages a healthy democracy.

Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision to veto the bill removing the voting barrier of requiring a specific excuse to receive a ballot in the mail reflects poorly on the process and on New Hampshire. The bill would have allowed any active registered voter to receive a ballot by mail for any specific election, simply by asking for it. No longer would we be treated like potentially truant school children needing a note from our doctor.

“Excuse required” voting forces us to know (or pretend to know) what our lives will be like on a specific day, weeks or months in the future. “No excuse” benefits everyone, including seniors who might have trouble getting to the polls, rural voters far from a polling place, first responders whose schedules can be preempted, a single parent working two jobs, families whose kids get sick, someone with an unexpected trip and all of us in dicey weather. Let’s all be adults in this conversation; as long as we are following the basic rules for voting, why treat this like an episode of Big Brother?

Nationally, 32 states already offer this convenience to their citizens. Several more have limited requirements or are debating removing the requirements entirely. The trend is clear, and it’s clear our Legislature supports House Bill 611 to end the specific excuses requirement for absentee ballots.

We should also look at turnout. Right now, New Hampshire’s 2018 voter turnout ranked us 15th in percentage of registered voters who cast ballots. If, as many studies have shown, specific excuse language drives down participation, why would we do this?

Opponents of HB 611 and the governor prefer to leave the “excuse required” barrier in place, citing “objections” that do not stand up to the facts.

For example, they claim HB 611 opens the door to fraud and abuse. But the conservative Heritage Foundation tracks voter fraud nationally, and its data shows no higher, and often lower, incidents of fraud in mailed-out ballot states. Since 2000, a quarter of a billion votes have been cast from mailed-out ballots. This is a tried and true process. In 2018 alone, about 42 million ballots were mailed out, with about 31 million cast (a 75% turnout – way above polling place voters). That represented about 25% of the total 120 million votes cast nationally. And the mail ballot percentage is growing every cycle. We don’t need to clamp down on this approach.

Critics also claim it will allow non-citizens to vote. However, voters can apply for an absentee ballot only if they are a registered voter, which requires proper identification.

Opponents claim people will vote others’ ballots or divert them, but signature verification on each returned ballot envelope (standard in all high mail ballot usage states) plus FedEx-like ballot envelope tracking is now a best practice nationally. This concern is demonstrably unwarranted.

A few claim this is all a plot from the political left. But “red” Utah votes 100% from mailed-out ballots; 70% of red Arizona and Montana voters do, too. North Dakota has 30 counties that vote 100% via mailed-out ballots. Nebraska will be up to 11 counties doing so in 2020. Even in “blue” Oregon and Washington, where everyone gets a ballot delivered, both elected secretaries of state are Republicans, and both are fans of the model. Closer to home, “no excuse” Ohio mails an absentee request form to all 8 million voters every election. This is about higher engagement in our democracy, not partisan advantage.

Lastly, some claim absentee ballots will swamp elections officials. But our neighbors in Vermont and Maine are both on the “no excuse” model; their elections officials seem to manage just fine.

America entrusts our state and our citizens with the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. It is a shame our governor chooses to not entrust all of us with an equal opportunity to vote.

(Rep. Katherine Rogers of Concord represents Merrimack District 28 in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.)

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