By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Allowing for absentee voting while still offering a chance to vote at the polls is preferred by the Secretary of State to keep New Hampshire’s voter turnout among the nation’s highest.
Secretary of State Bill Gardner said he does not favor closing polling locations and going to a strict
ly mail-in voting system, nor does he think it’s right to force voters to go there for fear of their health.
Gardner said he worries that absentee votes can be influenced and are not as private as the town hall voting booth where people know each other and have the privacy of a voting booth.
“I know every person who has touched that ballot. I know that person who opened that box to make sure that the Hampton ballots were not the New Hampton ballots or the North Hampton ballots, that Greenland’s votes did not go to Greenville. We know who signs off on that and the moderator knows the people,” Gardner said. “There is a chain of custody.”
Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald said in a news release that a team of 45 attorneys, investigators, and staff from his office were deployed and inspected approximately 302 of New Hampshire’s 309 polling places on Tuesday.
The Attorney General’s Election Hotline received approximately 125 calls and emails during the Primary Election Day with more than 110 issues raised. The vast majority of issues were resolved on Tuesday by working directly with local election officials or voters, the release said. Some of the issues require follow up after the election.
Gardner accurately predicted that the state would set a record voter turnout for a September state primary with about 285,000 votes cast with close to 100,000 of that by absentee ballot, another record.
About 136,000 took Republican ballots and about 149,000 selected a Democratic ballot in a state where about 40 percent of the electorate can go either way, as Undeclared/Independent voters.
New Hampshire has been among the top three states in voter turnout for years now when one considers the voting age population and one state which had been ahead of the Granite State for years in that category was Oregon, which has gone to a strictly vote by mail system. Since then it has dropped statistically, most recently resting at 17th among the 50 states.
In 2016, 69 percent of the voting-age population took a ballot in New Hampshire while in Oregon that year the percentage was 61 percent.
He also said that he thinks New Hampshire voters like the in-person experience of voting and the accountability that goes with it between themselves and the poll workers, many of whom are elected and take that oath seriously.
New Hampshire is the easiest place to vote in the nation, Gardner said, and his goal is to ensure that the state’s voters have easy access and feel confident with the system that their vote is counted.
He said he has some reservations about mail-in voting, however.
“When someone mails a ballot, I don’t know if it was a secret vote ballot. I don’t know how many people handled it or made the marks on it,” he said.
The act of voting is “very fragile” and if people doubt their system, they may not vote at all, he said, adding he wants to avoid that.
Gardner, who has presided over all elections in the state since 1976, said, “There are all kinds of reasons that people don’t vote, but it makes it even more difficult if they doubt the system.”
When it is all one system – either mail-in only or in-person only – you may lose voters, he said.
In November 2000 Oregon became the first state to go to a vote by mail system. It was championed by Phil Keisling, who was Oregon Secretary of State from 1991 to 1999, and is now chair of the National Vote at Home Institute.
He said he used to “hang out” with Keisling at national events and that the Oregon secretary approached him in the late 1990s to consider mail-in voting on the East coast to get the idea going nationally. Gardner said he considered it, but thought it was “not for New Hampshire.”
Since then, Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii have eliminated the polling places entirely and gone to a mail-only system and other states are eying it, particularly since the pandemic. Twenty-eight states allow absentee votes upon request and 17 states allow it but require an excuse.
New Hampshire’s Constitution still has language which requires voting in person but it also allows for an excuse.
This year voters could use the box for a “disability” if voters were concerned about COVID-19 to get an absentee ballot, even if they were not away or overseas and even if they do not consider themselves disabled.
He said he got a few calls from people concerned about considering themselves disabled and he was able to convince them to use the system in place to preserve the integrity of the entire process.
In April, President Donald Trump began to rail against absentee voting calling it “corrupt” even though he has used it in the past to vote. He wrote April 8 on Twitter: “You’d never have a Republican elected in the country again” if the votes were absentee, following an unsubstantiated claim by critics that such voting by mail can favor the Democrats.
The president has continued to rail against the use of absentee ballots since then as he continues to falter in the polls.
While not related to absentee voting, Gardner also accurately predicted that more people would take a Democratic ballot on Tuesday. They did by about 13,000 votes.
Gardner said there are 50,000 more voters than the state had two years ago and there will be more voters after Tuesday’s numbers are tabulated. Before Tuesday’s election, about 390,000 were registered as Independent/Undeclared. Those voters and can vote in either primary.
There were also 1,012,002 registered voters and of that number, the undeclared was 393,696 Gardner said. Democrats 318,994. Republicans 299,312.
Gardner said he is concerned about a lot of “misinformation out there” and he remembered the past when there were more reporters, more editors, and more news outlets to report the facts. He pointed to letters to the editor stating inaccurate facts and even editorials written based on those letters with falsities.
For example, he pointed out that New Hampshire does not have provisional balloting. He said one story he read would tend to indicate to the reader that you could not register to vote at the polls because of timing on finalizing the checklists.
He said he was not the type to call out papers on stories that are “blatantly untrue” but might mention it to the reporter if he saw them. He cautioned that stories like that, and information spread through social media may be “hurting the vote because they are being misled.”
November’s general election is different and more complicated than most. Gardner said historically when we have an incumbent running for re-election, as we do this time around, we don’t see the increases in voters, so that is one factor.
Another, which favors higher voter turnout is “all the hype about this election.”
He said people turn out heavily when there is a lot of unemployment like there is now because of the pandemic, so there is an economic factor to consider.
There are still about eight weeks left and things can change so he was not yet ready to place a bet on turnout.
One thing people can be sure of, he said, is that New Hampshire has one of the safest systems in the country, offers access in various ways, and the public should be able to feel confident that each and every vote is counted.
To explore a large body of data related to voting in New Hampshire, visit the elections button at https://sos.nh.gov/