By GARRY RAYNO
InDepthNH.org’s State House Bureau Chief
New Hampshire is known for its retail politics.
The hand-to-hand connection between candidate and resident has diminished in recent years as campaigns turn more and more to traditional and social media.
The days of candidates knocking on doors and standing at the town dump are disappearing, but today even the town dump is a dying institution.
Slick, professional advertising campaigns, captured sound bites, doctored videos, manipulated pictures and stretched truth are now the norm as campaigns work to establish message and talking points and school candidates not to improvise.
Campaigns also stage events around an issue with local officials or experts to engage voters although fewer reporters are available to carry the message to the public.
As much as campaigns have changed to reflect the times, nothing has changed this election as much as the coronavirus pandemic.
How do candidates meet large groups of voters these days? And do they really want to with community spread still pervasive in New Hampshire.
For example, county fairs used to be a staple for candidates who would walk the midways and barns shaking hands and holding babies.
Now no one should shake hands or hold babies for fear of spreading the virus.
In a Presidential year, you could always count on your party’s candidate or his or her spouse or other surrogates for at least one large rally to spread the word instead of the virus which circulates now.
Instead we have a steady streaming of Zoom meetings with candidates selling their message to a like-minded group or debating with one another.
During debates candidates are not in the same room so watching the facial expressions and body language of your opponent is nearly impossible on the electronic stage.
Press conferences have been replaced with the four or five daily press releases from the candidates touting their platform or reacting to something their opponent said or utilizing opposition research to show a vulnerability.
It is just not the same as having a couple of candidates clash at a press conference on the streets of Manchester or at the Legislative Office Building in Concord.
At this juncture with the primary election Tuesday, it is hard to gauge how the changes will affect the turnout and enthusiasm for both candidates and parties.
While in one way candidates are more accessible on electronic platforms — you don’t have to travel 20 miles to see the candidates at a forum — the candidates become more like “television personalities” instead of real people.
Campaigns have had to adjust on the fly and deal with situations unimaginable just six months ago. Some have adjusted better than others.
Even in state House and Senate races or county positions, the candidates have had to make changes.
Not too many people would welcome a candidate going door-to-door — and certainly would not appreciate an unmasked one — seeking votes.
The Lions Club and Chamber of Commerce meetings that are the lifeblood for House and Senate candidates are not being held nor are many other gatherings like candidate nights at the town hall.
The polling places will be different this year as well as the usual areas for those holding signs for candidates will be limited and social distancing will further limit candidate visibility.
For the down-ballot races, incumbents should have a significant advantage this year and maybe even races up-ballot as well.
The pandemic has also temporarily changed voting laws to allow people troubled by large crowds and the possibility of infection to vote by absentee ballot.
And so far about 100,000 people have requested absentee ballots and two-thirds of them have been returned to local election officials.
This is a lot like early voting and both parties have done their part to encourage that via absentee ballot for many elections now not just this one.
This year, the Republican Party, whether intentional or not, has done more to confuse people with its mailers first with a Durham address for many around the state and a faulty voter list, and then with bad information resulting in a “cease and desist” order from the Attorney General’s Office.
While the GOP blames its mail house, it should be noted similar problems surfaced in Arizona, Alaska, Missouri and Montana with GOP mailers.
In New Hampshire lawmakers approved the key recommendations from a select committee on an election during a pandemic.
The changes were approved by Gov. Chris Sununu, but he vetoed a bill that would have made some of the changes permanent like absentee ballots on demand instead of the few reasons now allowed except for this election year.
What has not changed is that absentee ballots cannot be counted until the polls close, they can begin processing the ballots but not count them.
With five or six times the number of usual absentee ballots to be run through machines or counted by hand, some election results will take additional time to tabulate.
The counting process may also be slowed by party representatives challenging ballots. The parties are lining up people to check every ballot in this watershed election.
In a close race, like the one expected for the Democratic gubernatorial race between Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky and Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, the results may not be known on election night.
The delay will be even greater in the general election when many more people are expected to vote. The results may take days to determine in New Hampshire, not what Granite Staters expect.
The $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act money the state received includes funds for the election changes needed to make voters and poll workers safer.
The state also has money remaining from the Help America Vote Act passed in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election that was eventually settled by the U.S. Supreme Court giving the election to former President George W. Bush although he lost the popular vote to former Vice President Al Gore.
If Gore had won New Hampshire, the Florida vote counts would not have been an issue and he would have been president instead of Bush, but he didn’t.
That election is a good reminder that every vote counts, whichever party you belong to or if you are an undeclared voter.
State officials have done many things to make it easier and safer to vote this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
So if you have not done so already, please go vote Tuesday. Our Democracy depends on engaged citizens to survive.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.
InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.