Sununu signs bill requiring accessible voting machines in every town

Voting stations in the Warner Town Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

Voting stations in the Warner Town Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. DANA WORMALD—New Hampshire Bulletin

By ETHAN DeWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 07-09-2024 10:15 AM

New Hampshire cities and towns will be required to provide accessible voting machines for all elections after January 2025, according to a bill signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu this month.

House Bill 1264, signed by Sununu July 3, states that every municipality must “ensure that each polling place has at least one accessible voting system” during every election. And it creates a pilot program requiring the Secretary of State’s Office to share those machines with towns and cities in spring 2025.

“Now those of us with vision and print disabilities will be able to vote independently and keep our votes private like everyone else,” said Jean Shriner, an activist, in a statement reacting to the signing Friday. “For me, as a blind person, it’s empowering and exciting.”

Currently, the Secretary of State’s Office provides accessible voting machines to cities and towns only during federal elections – as required by federal law. That includes the September state primaries, the November general elections, and the presidential primaries.

But the state does not provide the machines to cities and towns for other elections, such as town meetings. And only two New Hampshire municipalities – Concord and Exeter – currently own such machines for those elections. Both municipalities purchased the machines only after residents threatened to bring legal action against them using the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The machines are tablets connected to keyboards and headphones that allow those with sight, hearing, or other disabilities to cast ballots without needing to tell a local official their vote. Voters can use the headphones to have an automated voice read the candidate names and allow them to select their choices, and they can use the tablets to accurately select the right candidates. The machines then print out a ballot with the bubbles of the selected candidates filled in; that ballot can be added to a voting tabulator with all others. 

Advocates for the bills, who include people with disabilities, said that when it came to the availability of machines, the lack of consistency between federal and non-federal elections was unfair. Even though the state owns the machines used in federal elections, Secretary of State Dave Scanlan has argued that programming them and lending them out for each town election would not be feasible. 

The issue recently caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice; in 2018, the federal agency began investigating the city of Concord for its failure to provide the machines, prompting the city to buy the machine in a settlement. Supporters of HB 1264 said it was only a matter of time before more lawsuits forced other towns and cities to do the same.

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The bill creates a pilot program by which the Secretary of State’s Office must share the machines it has with cities and towns for the first six months of 2025 – town meeting season. That will allow municipalities to use the state’s machines during a year in which there are no other statewide elections, eliminating Scanlan’s concerns about reprogramming the machines in time, supporters say.

Lawmakers are then hoping to secure state money in the next two-year budget – in 2025 – in order to help towns purchase the machines themselves. 

“The secret ballot is a fundamental part of ensuring a strong democracy,” said Rep. Mark Paige, an Exeter Democrat and the bill’s prime sponsor, in a statement reacting to the bill signing. “This bill sends the message that discriminating against voters with disabilities in local elections will no longer be tolerated.”