By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
For many reasons this has to be the strangest campaign season in modern times.
The coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt the usual practices of campaigning and ultimately voting.
One of the few bills that made it through the interrupted legislative session this year changed the voting system to better protect voters, poll workers and election officials from contracting COVID-19.
The bill temporarily changes state law for the 2020 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.
The biggest change allows voters to request an absentee ballot due to the pandemic not just for illness, being out of town or disabilities.
Along with that change, election officials may begin processing absentee ballots before election day, but not open or count the ballots until the final tally election day.
Cities and towns have also done their part to help with safety, holding absentee voting days allowing voters to apply for a ballot, fill it out and put in a collection box, often outside as a drive-through process.
Many cities and towns also have specific hours for voters to drop off absentee ballots at the town or city clerk’s office, all done to assure voters their ballots will be counted after the U.S. Post Office initially said all ballots may not be delivered on time after recent changes to operations.
The changes resulted in a record number of absentee ballots cast in the September primary and a record number of voters participating.
The numbers of absentee requests for the general election is already a record at more than 200,000, with about 140,000 returned, and many expect either a record turnout or at least the highest percentage of voters in decades.
The conventional wisdom is that Democrats use absentee voting more than Republicans, who turn out larger numbers election day at the polls.
The wisdom may hold, but in several communities that changed polling places and setups, Republicans are urging their members to vote by absentee ballot fearing long lines and delays at the polls election day.
The system adopted for his year only is really early voting for New Hampshire residents.
The obvious question is if it is so successful why not adopt the same procedures for statewide elections in general.
The legislature approved a bill to have absentee voting on demand, but Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed it.
The concept is almost certain to be discussed again when the new legislature convenes in January.
One concern expressed by some voting officials are guns in the polling place.
New Hampshire is an “open carry” state and the legislature several years ago changed state law to allow lawful gun owners to conceal a weapon.
For many years, the state required gun owners who wanted to conceal their weapons to obtain a permit from the local police department. But that changed in 2017, the first year Sununu was governor. Democratic governors had vetoed the change.
The Attorney General’s Office told election officials last week, while guns could not be banned from polling places including in schools, where a federal law prohibits firearms, voter intimidation will not be tolerated.
Voter intimidation is a felony. Several local and national organizations have hotlines, as does the state to report any incidents of attempted voter intimidation or other voting irregularities.
You can avoid problems at the polls by voting early by absentee ballot, which would also be a good thing to do given the explosion of new COVID-19 cases reaching levels not seen since late April and early May.
The traditional models for campaigning do not work well in a pandemic although Republicans appeared more willing to fly closer to the sun than Democrats.
Knocking on doors, the usual retail politics standards bearer, is not a great idea with virus fear running rampant.
But certainly some politicians have done that, and also greeted voters at the town dump or transfer station, in restaurants and other gathering places.
But all of that is pretty risky and growing more so.
Zoom meetings, debates and small outdoor gatherings were more prevalent this year.
While COVID-19 has curtailed most large gatherings, it has not stopped President Donald Trump or his surrogates like Vice President Pence or the president’s children from attracting large crowds where social distancing is difficult.
Trump returned to the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport Sunday for a rally as he criss-crosses the country concentrating on swing states.
Democrats had vice president Kamala Harris’ husband Doug Emhoff in the state Saturday appearing at a number of smaller get-out-the-vote events.
The Republicans had the playing field mostly to themselves during the summer in terms of physical voter registration drives, but Democrats have picked up the pace this fall.
Town and city supervisors of the checklist must meet in session between six and 13 days before the general election to register voters, which means for some unregistered voters, that option has passed.
But New Hampshire has had election-day registration for nearly 20 years, and that is an option for non-registered voters.
Same-day registration also has both parties concerned the other party is banking non-registered voters to have them register election day.
Such an influx could change the election dynamics considerably as happened four years ago when many residents who had not participated in elections turned out to vote, as they did in 2008.
Recently the Attorney General’s Office rebutted an attempt by the Republican Party to prohibit remote-learning students who are now located out-of-state, from voting in New Hampshire.
The Attorney General’s Office said if the students had declared New Hampshire as their domicile, and were temporarily out-of-state, the law allows them to vote in New Hampshire.
This is the time in the campaign season when both parties seek every advantage they can find.
Big and Small
New Hampshire is the first state to record votes for president every four years. This year will be no different as the five registered voters of Dixville Notch gather before midnight, fill out their ballots, which will be tabulated at the stroke of midnight and one presidential candidate or the other will have a lead.
The voting for many years was at the Balsams Resort, which is no longer open.
In a little more than a week, the five voters — the minimum needed by New Hampshire law to have a voting precinct — will gather a few miles down the road to cast their ballots.
While Dixville is the smallest official polling place, about 175 miles south in Derry, is the largest polling place in the United States. But Derry residents will be casting their votes, a little later than Dixville Notch residents.
Derry, which votes at Pinkerton Academy, has just one voting district and therefore one polling place.
With about 20,000 registered voters, it is the largest voting district in the country, according to Secretary of State William Gardner.
About eight to 10 years ago, Gardner heard the chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission say the largest polling place in the country was in the Bronx in New York City with 11,000 registered voters.
Gardner thought that Derry, Salem and Merrimack had more registered voters in their districts and called the chair to tell him and he eventually corrected his statement.
Four years ago, Derry had about 17,000 voters and this time about 19,000 are likely to vote, although Gardner said there have been about 5,000 requests for absentee ballots that will lessen the crowds at the polls.
But he says it will still be the largest polling place in the country.
First in the nation, and smallest and largest polling places, New Hampshire has it all.
But you have to do your part even if you don’t live in Dixville Notch – or in Derry.
Vote like democracy depends on it, because it does.
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.