Online voter registration fails

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 06-26-2023 2:51 PM

New Hampshire lawmakers killed a bill last week that would have allowed for online voter registration in time for the 2024 presidential primaries, after Senate Republicans objected to an unrelated House amendment over ballot machines.

As originally introduced, Senate Bill 70 would have allowed the secretary of state to create an “Election Information Portal” to let residents register to vote online when they move to a new town. The portal would also allow voters to request absentee ballots and update their name and address information within the voter file. 

New Hampshire is one of 11 states that do not allow online voter registration, according to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. Under current law, residents must go to their town offices in person or send a request by mail. Advocates have argued an online registration option would help more people register before election day, which would reduce the number of same-day registrants at the polls and ease headaches for voters and poll workers. 

But after the Senate passed that version by voice vote in February, the House added an unrelated amendment to the bill that would have allowed the secretary of state to give some of its federal grant money to towns to help them replace aging voting machines. 

House lawmakers have argued that many of the voting machines used by New Hampshire cities and towns need to be replaced in order to facilitate smooth elections – some were first installed 30 years ago. And they say state and federal funding would help take the burden of those new machines off local property taxpayers. 

“We’ll be going into (the) 2024 election with most likely the highest turnout that the state has ever seen with the largest population the state has ever seen with machines that are 30 years old, saying ‘Hey, just one more election,’” said Rep. Ross Berry, a Manchester Republican.

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But during “committee of conference” negotiations Tuesday, Senate Republicans opposed that amendment, with one, Sen. James Gray, calling it a “poison pill.” They argued the federal grant money in question – given to the state via the Help America Vote Act of 2002 – should be used to pay for state-led trainings for local election workers, accessible voting machines for voters with disabilities, and election-related state expenses. And they said that sending some of that money to towns to replace voting machines could deplete the state’s current reserves. 

Gray, a Rochester Republican and chairman of the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs committee, argued that towns should have to pay for new voting machines themselves and build community support for it, and said the state should not be involved in funding them. 

“I have no problem with a city or town who wants to have a tabulating machine to use the tabulating machine, but I see no reason for the state to provide special money for that,” Gray said.

Negotiators were unable to find consensus. Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, a Portsmouth Democrat, produced a compromise amendment that allowed the secretary of state to devote funds to towns to pay for new voting machines but that reduced the impact on the state’s Help America Vote Act funding. But while that compromise gained nearly everyone’s vote, one member of the committee, Deputy Speaker Steve Smith, a Charlestown Republican, voted no. 

Committee of conference reports must be unanimous in order to advance; with a 6 to 1 vote, the compromise attempt failed.

In a statement after the negotiating breakdown, one member of the committee of conference, Rep. Angela Brennan, a Bow Democrat, lamented the loss of the underlying bill to allow online voter registration.

“This bill would safely and securely welcome New Hampshire to the 21st century by directing the Secretary of State to create an election information portal for basic application processes, a system used successfully in over 40 other states,” Brennan said. 

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