Voters should register, request absentee ballots early

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 7/4/2020 3:57:57 PM

This year all eligible voters in New Hampshire can register to vote by mail, but voters should make their requests for absentee ballots and absentee voter registrations early, to help the state cope with the anticipated surge in remote voting this year.

“Voters can really, really help if they act early,” said Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan. “Get registered well before the election.”

There are no on-going metrics to monitor voter registration in New Hampshire at this point in the election cycle. Scanlan said he wouldn’t expect to have data on how the pandemic is overall impacting voter registration until the fall. There has been a noticeable increase in people requesting to vote by mail, he said.

“It’s not a sharp curve, it’s a steady incline,” he said. “But we do know there’s interest in voters doing what they need to, to vote.”

National reporting indicates that new voter registrations have decreased compared to 2016, the most recent presidential election year, likely due to the coronavirus. A report published June 10 by the nonprofit Center for Innovation and Research looked at voter registration data from 12 states (no New England States were included). It found that while new registrations were increasing at the beginning of 2020 compared to the same period in 2016, they dropped sharply between February and March, and have continued to fall. Overall, new voter registrations have seen a “remarkable decline,” the report concluded.

New Hampshire has two main options for voter registration: people can register in-person at their town clerk’s office or in-person at the polls. People who qualify to vote by absentee ballot can also request an absentee voter registration, which must be completed by mail.

This year, any voter in New Hampshire who has concerns about being exposed to the virus can request an absentee ballot or absentee registration, according to an April 10 memo from the Secretary of State’s office. This isn’t a change to state law, but rather a broad interpretation of existing law that allows people with a physical disability to vote – and register to vote – by absentee ballot.

“All voters have a reasonable ground to conclude that a ‘physical disability’ exists,” because of the precautions they’re all taking to avoid coronavirus, the memo said.

Scanlan emphasized this point.

“Anyone who has a concern about COVID-19 … can request either one of those two documents: absentee ballot or an absentee voter registration form,” he said.

Yet Sarah Jane Knoy, executive director of the Granite State Organizing Project, a grassroots organization aimed at expanding economic and racial justice, said it’s confusing to people who still see that they need to check a box stating they have a “disability” to qualify for absentee registration. Most people don’t view their pandemic response that way.

“If they don’t change the language to make it clear to people, that could be off-putting,” Knoy said.

A change to the text of election law would need to come through the legislature, where updating election law has become a divisive partisan issue.

“People have strong opinions on those issues in both directions,” Scanlan said. “It may not be easy legislation to pass.”

Online voter registration might have made an election during COVID-19 easier, he said, but it’s not being considered for this year. In the future, it may be, he added.

Knoy said that allowing anyone with a COVID concern to register and vote absentee is “a good first step,” but she’s worried people won’t know about this option. Most new voters are young, national data shows, and they may not know how to navigate the process of requesting an absentee ballot or registration. Even small barriers, like obtaining postage, can keep people from voting or registering by mail, Knoy said.

New Hampshire was covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Knoy pointed out. The section, which predominantly covered Southern states, required that changes to election laws in ten New Hampshire towns had to be approved by federal officials, in order to reduce unfair election practices. In 2013, a Supreme Court ruling struck down the provision.

However, a 2018 report by the New Hampshire Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights cited the need for easier voter registration in New Hampshire. “Certain registration procedures are inefficient and cumbersome, and could potentially impact the ability of voters from being able to vote on Election Day,” the report reads. “There should be, at a minimum, a mail-in option for residents and ideally, the ability for residents to update their registration online.”

Thirty-nine states and Washington D.C. allow people to register to vote online. Of the states that do not allow online registration, New Hampshire is the only one to require in-person registration in front of the city or town clerk. That requirement means there’s less room for convenient voter-registration options, like going door-to-door to register people or allowing people to register at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

“None of that happens here,” Knoy said.

Voter registration closes six to 13 days before an election, and reopens at the polls (see more on voter registration deadlines here), so people should request mail-in registration ahead of time, Scanlan said. Voters can look up their registration status on the Secretary of State’s website.

Absentee ballots are usually available 30 days before the election, and this year the state aims to have them mailed out even earlier, Scanlan said. If someone has registered to vote absentee and not received a ballot by three weeks before the election they should contact their town clerk, he said. People can request absentee ballots until the day before an election at 5 p.m.

In addition to the expected increase in voting by mail, polls will be open for same-day registration. There’s no scenario where someone who wants to vote and can get to the polls would be unable to vote, Scanlan said.

“They will be able to vote and their vote will count,” he said. “Our objective is make sure everybody can safely exercise their right to vote.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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