My Turn: COVID-19 and the case for no-excuse absentee voting

For the Monitor
Published: 3/20/2020 6:30:26 AM
Modified: 3/20/2020 6:30:15 AM

Last week, the town of Newmarket closed its entire school district to prevent coronavirus spread. When the town administrator was asked if voting was still set for Tuesday, he said: “If you’re sick, stay away from voting tomorrow. We can get you an absentee ballot.” But unfortunately, that’s not really the case.

As Granite Staters headed to the polls and town meetings across New Hampshire, the purest form of democracy was flooded with concerns from voters and town officials who worried the meetings would increase the spread of coronavirus. Two state representatives who are self-quarantining had come into contact with someone at the polls who might have coronavirus in Epping.

Last year, Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a bipartisan no-excuse absentee voting bill that would have ensured safer access to casting a ballot. For elections in November and in the future, we hope Gov. Sununu and the Senate will take a second look at no-excuse absentee voting so that voting can be more accessible for those who are sick, and can be safer for entire communities who are trying to contain the spread of this virus.

First, voters who are sick shouldn’t have to show up to their polling location and risk spreading their illness to other voters because they don’t have the option to vote by absentee ballot. If voters are sick, they should stay home and know that they can still participate in their local elections. But with our current system, neither illness nor fear of contagion are acceptable reasons to get an absentee ballot. Giving voters the option to vote by mail without an excuse would make voting safer during a public health challenge.

Second, no-excuse absentee voting would be a strategic way to manage containment during a growing public health challenge like coronavirus. With events being canceled because of worries about large groups of people in concentrated spaces, New Hampshire needs to have no-excuse absentee voting as an option for voters. This would ease concerns about potentially exposing yourself to coronavirus at the polling place. It would also allow voters to put their health concerns first, and still be able to participate in elections.

Finally, even with town officials who are doing everything they can to manage the safety at polling places, a no-excuse absentee option offers voters who are most vulnerable to coronavirus a safe way to vote. Absentee voting gives Granite Staters who have heightened concerns about any virus the option of being able to participate in our democracy without the concern of contracting the illness. Think about our elderly citizens and those with pre-existing conditions, who are frequently most at-risk for being seriously impacted by outbreaks.

Some critics of no-excuse absentee voting say it would increase the administrative burden on town officials during election season. But this view is shortsighted. Allowing ill voters to cast a ballot from home would protect poll workers as well.

While no-excuse absentee voting would be a prudent and effective way to manage a health crisis like coronavirus, it will also ensure that more people can participate in our democracy.

No-excuse absentee voting would help Granite Staters who have more than one job and have less spare time to vote. These voters’ schedules may not accommodate voting on a single day and having a longer period of time to send in a ballot would ensure their voices are heard.

It would also be a great help for older voters who are less likely to have reliable transportation or have difficulty standing in line. Instead, older voters could vote from the comfort of their own homes and would not have to worry about getting to their polling place.

No-excuse absentee voting would ensure that Granite Staters’ voices are heard even in the midst of COVID-19. Now that House Bill 1672 has passed the House and heads toward the Senate, we hope that legislators and Gov. Chris Sununu take a second look at no-excuse absentee voting so that Granite Staters can have peace of mind knowing that voting is safe and accessible.

(Liz Tentarelli is the president of the League of Women Voters New Hampshire.)

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