By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Voters will be able to vote by mail this fall to avoid coronavirus exposure after Gov. Chris Sununu signed House Bill 1266 into law Friday.
The bipartisan bill passed the Senate unanimously and the House by a two-to-one margin and is intended to make it safer for both voters and election workers fearful for their health in the pandemic.
The bill temporarily changes state law for the upcoming elections to address recommendations made by the Secretary of State’s Select Committee on 2020 Emergency Election Support in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sununu said he supported the bill last week in his veto message for another bill that would have allowed absentee voting without having to give a reason.
“Today’s passage of HB 1266 is the result of dedicated, bipartisan work to ensure that this September and November, no eligible voter is prevented from participating in free and fair elections due to fear of COVID-19,” said state Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, who spearheaded work on the bill and is a member of the select committee.
The chair of the House Election Law Committee David Cote, D-Nashua, said work is needed in the next session to make the changes permanent.
“The temporary measures included in this bill are absolutely necessary to protect the health of voters this fall,” Cote said. “After Gov. Sununu rejected legislation to permanently expand absentee voting rights, this bill temporarily permitting absentee balloting by voters concerned about exposure to COVID-19 became critical to short-term public health and election fairness.”
The chair of the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee Melanie Levesque, D-Brookline, said passage of the bill was essential for the upcoming elections.
“As we approach the 2020 state primary and general elections, action needed to be taken to ensure that no one was forced to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Levesque said. “While we celebrate today’s victory, we must also remember that these measures are temporary and as a state, we have a long way to go towards securing and modernizing our election system not only for this cycle, but for every election cycle hereafter.”
Under the bill, a box would be added to the absentee voter application for fear of COVID-19, allow a person to request absentee ballots for both the primary and general election with one application, and allows election officials to begin processing absentee ballots before election day but not open or count the ballots until the final tally election day.
A person would continue to be able to vote at the polls during the first hour the polls are open, while withdrawing his or her absentee ballot and would allow absentee ballots to be challenged after the outside envelope is open, but not the one containing the ballot.
And a provision allowing 10 or more voters to postpone processing absentee ballots until after the polls close would also be suspended for this year’s elections.
Other recommendations by the commission include having the state pay the return postage on absentee ballots, providing drop boxes at clerks’ offices and creating an electronically downloadable voting-by-absentee-ballot package.
A major public information campaign will be completed possibly sending an absentee ballot application to every registered voter and timely processing is required to inform a voter if his or her application is incomplete.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.