Lawmakers contemplate online voter registration in New Hampshire
|Published: 06-14-2023 2:13 PM
The New Hampshire Legislature is considering allowing online voter registration – a major potential change to the state’s election system that advocates say would ease burdens on voters and poll workers.
Senate Bill 70, which the House passed last week, would allow the Secretary of State’s Office to create an “election information portal” in New Hampshire, which would allow voters to register to vote and request an absentee ballot online. The proposed system would also let voters change their party affiliation online and amend information in the voter file, such as their name and current address.
If approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Chris Sununu, the bill would not take effect until January 2024 – just ahead of the state’s presidential primary, which is typically held in February.
The proposal follows years of advocacy from election reform groups such as Open Democracy New Hampshire to allow for online voter registration. New Hampshire is one of 11 states that does not have online registration, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
And it comes as the Secretary of State’s Office is already moving to replace its “legacy voter database” this year and upgrade to a more modern system, Secretary of State Dave Scanlan told lawmakers.
That transition means the state would be able to accommodate online registrations, too, Scanlan said.
Advocates for the online registration system say it would make it easier for many to access the polls.
Under current law, residents in the state must register to vote in person or by mail. The supervisors of the checklist for each town or city must meet between six and 13 days before the date of the election to review new registrations.
Those requirements can create barriers for people with disabilities, noted Krysten Evans, director of policy and advocacy for ABLE NH, a disability rights organization.
In the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, people with disabilities were about six percentage points less likely to vote, according to data from the United States Election Assistance Commission.
In New Hampshire, Evans wrote in testimony to the House earlier this year, the analog registration system has contributed to that gap.
“From the perspective of disability justice organizations, this bill is crucial in promoting access to the voting process for people with disabilities,” Evans wrote.
Town election officials say online voter registration would help them, too.
Often when people update their voting information in writing, errors can appear, noted Cathleen Fountain, the supervisor of the checklist for Dalton. Sometimes it’s bad handwriting or an omission of important information. Other times, election officials can make mistakes when transcribing.
SB 70 would allow voters to use a computer or phone keyboard to input the information from home; supervisors of the checklists would then review those submissions and update the voter file accordingly. Fountain said it would weed out inaccurate information, which can stick in the voter file and create problems on Election Day when not addressed in time.
“This bill provides a simple, efficient way for voters to help keep our voter rolls clean, as they are able to correct/update their information easily and safely,” Fountain wrote in her testimony.
Other voting rights groups said the system would be a major boost to voters, especially those whose jobs give them little time to get to the polls and register on Election Day. Providing a digital option could reduce the number of voters who choose same-day registration, which in turn could cut down on the lines and delays at the polls, argued Matt Mooshian, a Claremont city councilor and the advocacy and engagement director of 603 Forward, a progressive advocacy group.
“We live in a modern society where we can pay our bills online, can re-register our cars online, and can do all of our banking online,” Mooshian said in his testimony. “It is time to make this common-sense solution a reality and allow voters to register online, too.”
The bill has had bipartisan support this year. It was sponsored by Republican Sen. James Gray, chairman of the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee, and supported by Democrats.
But it faces a potential last-minute snag: In its vote last week, the House added an amendment allowing the Secretary of State’s Office to provide federal money to allow towns to replace voting machines.
The proposal would allow the office to use some of the state’s allocated Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds – which are used to pay for state voting operations and training sessions for local poll workers – to go to towns to help them pay to replace aging voting machines. House advocates say the provision would allow towns and cities that use machines to get ahead of potential Election Day malfunctions and replace the equipment without incurring major budget headaches.
Some Senate Republicans have opposed that measure, arguing the federal money is meant to pay for existing expenditures.
Gray criticized that voting machine amendment in a hearing.
“It is a fallacy to think that (we can) take the money and spend the HAVA money on something else, because all that money that you’re (spending) would then have to come out of the general fund,” Gray said. “… It’s just going to come out of a different pocket.”
On Thursday, the Senate will vote on whether to accept the amended bill and send it to the governor’s desk, reject it and kill the bill, or request a “committee of conference” to negotiate with the House.