By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CENTER HARBOR – Sitting together in lawn chairs with their signs under the shade tree outside Center Harbor Town Hall, the two candidates for state representative shook hands for the camera on a most unusual primary election day in New Hampshire.
During the day Tuesday, Secretary of State Bill Gardner spent time visiting polling places across New Hampshire and said things were going fairly smoothly in a pandemic year which may see his projected record turnout materialize.
In Center Harbor, Democrat Bob Joseph Jr. and Republican Tom Ploszaj will run against each other for state Representative in November, representing New Hampton and Center Harbor, no matter what happens in the primary.
The two could gaze out on Lake Winnipesaukee on the warm summer day, while a steady stream of mask-wearing voters walked past them all day, which polling officials said, was looking as if it might top numbers in 2018 by 3:30 p.m.
For this town that votes Republican most of the time and has not seen a single case of COVID-19 to date, there were plenty of precautions to prevent the event from becoming a super-spread.
It looked like just about everyone wore masks. There was hand sanitizer at the door, red tape on the floor for social distancing, plastic shields separating poll workers from the voters the state-issued, a century-old wooden voting box, which misspells Center Harbor as “Center Hrbor” and someone at the back door to allow folks to exit rather than backtrack through the front door.
By that hour, about 92 absentee ballots had been collected and there was a chance for a few more when the mail was checked at 5 p.m. But they also had 193 in-person voters with the rush hour still to come, totaling 285.
That was already ahead of the 277 votes cast in an equally divided climate of a primary in 2018. The poll workers had already been visited earlier in the day by Richard Tracy of the Attorney General’s Office who wanted to know how things were going and what was working and what could be improved.
Secretary of State Gardner said this will set a record for absentee votes cast. Gardner, who has presided over elections in the Granite State since 1976, visited polling locations in Franklin, Bristol, Danbury, New London, Windsor, and a ward precinct in Manchester on Tuesday to observe the election and to talk to poll workers.
“All of them were functioning the best I could imagine,” Gardner said.
Gardner said they had all the equipment they said they needed and were being creative with voters who refused to wear masks.
“I asked if any of the workers were reluctant” to work during COVID-19 and he said most workers were there and only one expressed concern.
Gardner said those who are elected by their communities to serve at the polls have a strong allegiance to their job and he prefers that to states that do not have elected workers overseeing the polls.
He said he asked about how to deal with voters refusing to wear masks and found there were some creative solutions to allow for those voters to cast their ballots noting Franklin had a separate little room and Windsor had a specific window set up which they fashioned into a sort of private booth.
Gardner said he lingered for at least a half-hour in each location to watch the process and was pleased with what he saw.
While he said there were no lines at any of the polling locations he visited, it was not taking people long to come, vote, and leave.
Gardner has predicted that this will be the largest absentee vote in state history.
Before Tuesday, Gardner said the state had 1,012,002 registered voters and of that number, the undeclared/independent voters had the largest total with 393,696, Democrats 318,994, Republicans 299,312.
Absentee voters will definitely break a record because in the past, New Hampshire has not had more than 10,000 absentee ballots in a September primary.
As of 6 a.m. Tuesday morning, Gardner said there were 78,419 absentee ballots returned but noted that number would go up in the final tally because at the polling places, there were manned drop boxes for the absentee ballots.
Add to that the fact that there was mail in the mailbox.
Because of the holiday, there were three-days worth of mail to collect and tabulate, he noted, as each polling place was to count all ballots as of 5 p.m.
“I think it will be 80,000 or in the low 80s,” he predicted.
Gardner said in September 2016, there were over 13,000 requested absentee ballots and a little over 9,000 came back.
“There has always been a number that doesn’t get the ballots back,” noting some are not counted because people fail to sign the affidavit envelope or they are too late.
Gardner said it is likely that the tabulations will take some time because there are so many names on the ballots – 1,500 or more – and each one, even those with uncontested races – need to be counted.
“It’s actually two elections going on here right now,” Gardner said of both contested races on the Democrat and Republican side.
“They do take longer because there is more paperwork,” he said.