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Anybody in New Hampshire can vote absentee because of COVID-19, but that’s not clear on all paperwork

  • The instructions when obtaining an absentee ballot make it clear that concern about COVID-19 is a legitimate reason for voting by mail. N.H. Secretary of State—Courtesy

  • Affidavit envelope

  • Alex Sanz

  • FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2020, file photo, New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner speaks prior to the presidential primary at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H. A disabilities rights organization filed a federal lawsuit against Gardner on Tuesday, July 7, 2020, claiming the state's absentee ballot system will force blind voters and those with other disabilities to sacrifice privacy, safety or potentially both during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer, File) Holly Ramer

Monitor staff
Published: 8/11/2020 4:48:23 PM

When legislators changed New Hampshire election law last month adding COVID-19 to the list of legal reasons to vote absentee, they forgot to change the official envelope used to mail in ballots, and some are concerned that resulting confusion could scare away voters.

“They were trying to find a compromise, and this was sort of left out,” is how Secretary of State Bill Gardner described the situation Monday.

Concern about the effect of the mix-up was voiced in an opinion piece in Monday’s Monitor by Concord resident Mary Wilke.

“Many voters, faced with this threatening language … might choose not to vote at all,” Wilke wrote. “Voting in a pandemic is likely to bring many confusions that we can’t control; we should at least eliminate the ones we can.”

Gardner, who says he has talked to a couple of voters voicing similar concerns, said, “The last thing we want is for people not to vote.”

Here’s the problem: When people who don’t want to vote in person because of COVID-19 but do not have a physical disability place their ballot inside the official affidavit envelope to mail it back to the state, they must sign a statement on the back that says “on account of physical disability I am unable to vote in person” with no mention of the pandemic. “The penalty for knowingly providing false information … when voting is a class A misdemeanor”  that can result in a year in jail and a $5,000 fine, text on the envelope says.

By contrast, when voters apply to get a ballot in the first place, the instructions that come with it are more reassuring: “If you are voting absentee because of COVID-19 concerns, execute the affidavit ‘Absence Because of Religious Observance or Disability.’ Even if you do not consider yourself a person with a disability in other circumstances, this term applies for registering to vote and voting in 2020.”

Gardner said this “guidance” carries over to the official envelope, called the affidavit envelope, but he admits that the extra wording should also have been included as well.

Gardner said the envelopes cannot be changed by his office because its wording is set by the state constitution. His office is making an add-on sticker to be included with future ballots explaining that concern about COVID-19 is a legitimate reason to describe yourself as having a physical disability.

“We don’t have it out yet, hopefully by the end of the week – going to have the town clerks when they send this out, we’re going to have them put a sticker on the side … it’ll have the state seal. It will explain that disability includes concern about COVID-19,” he said.

The law in question, HB1266, was passed July 17 as part of the legislative scramble after the House and Senate returned from a pandemic-enforced layoff. 

“At the end of the session, a lot of things were going on and they were trying to have a bill that all parties could agree to. The bill went through different drafts out of the legislative committee. The affidavit envelope was left out,” said Gardner. “In some ways I share in this. … Our office had input.”

For more details about voting during COVID-19, including the application for an absentee ballot, check the Secretary of State’s “Voting During the COVID-19 State of Emergency” website, sos.nh.gov/elections/voters/voting-during-covid-19-state-of-emergency.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)
David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.



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