By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The state could go to “no excuse” absentee voting under a bill that is being considered by the Senate Election Law Committee.
House Bill 1672, which has already passed the House 194-132, had its virtual public hearing in a Senate committee on Thursday.
An amendment, which calls for allowing for early processing of the unseen ballots several days in advance of the election and for software to be developed to allow for online voter registration was also passed and will now go to the Senate for full consideration.
A number of town election officials, voters, and representatives of the ACLU-NH supported the measure as a way to improve ease and access to the election, similar to 30 other states.
But Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said the election this fall will be a challenge enough without changing things now in the time of a pandemic. He urged that the state retain the existing provisions which allow for absentee voting only for those who are out of state or have a disability, for example.
Scanlan said going forward after this election would be better than trying to implement this before the Sept. 8 primary and Nov. 3 general election. He said it would be practically impossible to get that done before the vote and it could cause confusion in an already confusing situation.
The bill was amended to push out the implementation date to January 2021 to accommodate Scanlan’s concerns.
State Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester, called the bill and its amendment a “poison pill” and said he did not want to belabor the matter by discussing it. He said he supported pre-processing of absentee ballots, however, but he voted against the bill as a whole as did Sen. Regina Birdsell R-Hampstead.
State Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord, sponsor of the bill, said she knows the Attorney General and Secretary of State have allowed for voters to use the excuse of the pandemic to ask for an absentee ballot for this election cycle but asked: “why should voters always need an excuse?”
Rogers said the bill would allow more people access to vote and thus more participation. Scanlan urged the committee to retain the existing provisions to protect the integrity of the process.
Scanlan said that there is no evidence that such a “no excuse” provision would increase higher turnout and there would be new concern about election security issues.
Joseph Bagshaw, a voter, said his wife has a medical condition that would preclude both her and him from showing up at the polls during COVID-19.
“It’s not a risk I am willing to take,” he said. Fortunately, the Secretary of State is allowing an excuse for this election cycle but he worried about going forward.
“What about the future years?” he asked.
Louise Spencer of Concord said she supports the concept of no-excuse voting and said she does believe that there is evidence that it would increase voter turnout.
Voting and elections are central, she said, to solving the societal inequities of racial injustice that we are facing now and leadership during COVID-19.
She urged the committee to address both short-term and long-term legislation that makes it possible for everyone to fully have their voice heard. Some said people refuse to identify themselves as disabled and thus will not take a ballot under the current law.
There are only 15 states left, including New Hampshire, that require an excuse to get an absentee ballot, while at least 30 states allow it and some don’t have anyone show up at the polls at all anymore.
New Hampshire traditionally has 77 percent of its voters show up at the polls in a presidential election and traditionally about 10 percent use an absentee ballot.
Some election officials believe that more than 50 percent of the ballots cast this fall will be by absentee.
Olivia Zink of Franklin, executive director of Open Democracy, said the crisis has exposed weaknesses in our systems and this emergency has been made it worse because we don’t have the ability to register to vote online or by mail.
“When clerks are closed, it is limiting people’s ability to register to vote,” Zink said.
She said the absentee voter process is not clear and simple. She said digital signatures should be allowed.
Victoria Turner, a supervisor of the checklist for the past 26 years in Bennington, said the emphasis should be on getting as many people to vote absentee this year as possible.
She said the state needs to “take the laboriousness out of the process” and design systems that are more efficient and reduce personal interactions, particularly in a pandemic.
Turner also said she thinks online voter registration is something we should consider in the future, for sure, while noting Scanlan said he does not think it is would be able to be done right now.
She said there are some systems that can help using an online form on the Secretary of State’s website.
Deanne Decker, a supervisor of the checklist in Nottingham, was supportive of the ballots being processed earlier, but existing law
The proposal is to allow the process the absentee ballots Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before the election and anyone who registers past that is considered a same-day voter.
Earlier in the day, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald sent guidance to voting officials across the state to declare that COVID-19 is a legitimate e
MacDonald said the disability provision of state election law will allow every citizen to vote absentee this fall.
He told town clerks that all voters have reasonable grounds to conclude that because of COVID-19, a “physical disability” exists to access polls in person.
“Therefore, all voters may request an absentee ballot on that basis,” MacDonald wrote.
He also noted that those unable to register to vote in person can do so by mail, email, fax or phone provided they include proof of residency, like a driver’s license or U.S. document with an address on it, and a copy of a utility bill or statement to that address.
Accommodations should be provided for those who can’t meet those terms, including election officials going into town parking lots wearing PPE and taking the documents while the voter sits in their vehicle, he wrote.
The disability provision will allow all people to vote absentee this fall, MacDonald stressed.
“Do not turn a voter away for lack of documentation,” he said.
Also in the six-page document, MacDonald said the Secretary of State’s office will provide training to the designees of the town clerk to accept the ballots by mail.
There is no timeline or deadlines specified in the document other than an Aug. 26 deadline for request for accommodations, but the Attorney General urged the public to apply early before the Sept. 8 primary election.
It cites RSA 657:1 as allowing the use of the disability provision to vote absentee.