By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Under a bill heard Monday, a voter would be able to decide to vote by absentee ballot without meeting the current legal reasons to do so.
Senate Bill 427 mirrors changes in election laws for the 2020 election due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill had a public hearing Monday before the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee.
The allowable use of absentee ballots for that election included health reasons as well as current excuses such as being out of town on election day or a disability preventing a person from going to the polls.
Senate Bill 427 would also allow election officials to begin processing absentee ballots before election day for one day that would be announced prior the meeting for processing.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, noted the change was incredibly successful producing the largest voter turnout in state history, more than 814,000 ballots cast, and three times the normal volume of absentee ballots.
The change had bipartisan support, she noted, and allowed voters to vote in a safe and efficient manner.
“That was an opportunity to test some of these ways to modernize the election process,” Soucy said. “This would codify in law the ability to vote absentee without having to give a delineated excuse.”
With an expected increase in the number of absentee ballots, she said, election officials would be able to partially pre-process the absentee ballots.
The use of absentee ballots will also help the workload at the polls, Soucy said, allowing a continuous flow of voters without long lines.
The use of absentee ballots for the 2020 election also allowed voters who made a mistake on the forms to cure the problems so their vote could count, she said.
“There is no question New Hampshire has a national reputation for fair and transparent elections,” Soucy said, “and it’s important voters continue to experience that.”
The bill also would allow someone to register to vote by filing the registration form with the town or city clerk without having to go in person.
Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester, chairman of the Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee, released a statement saying he was opposed to SB 427.
“It would effectively institute mail-in voting across New Hampshire by removing all current requirements necessary to qualify for an absentee ballot. If you are able-bodied, you should always try to vote in person. In person voting and attending town meeting are part of our long election tradition here in New Hampshire. Of course, there are circumstances when absentee voting is necessary, including illness, bad weather or absence from town. However, we should not start down a road that would lead to all mail-in voting being allowed in the future,” Gray said.
The bill was supported by Liz Tentarelli, president of the League of Women Voters-NH who said there are many reasons for making the change.
“From a league point of view, we are an organization dedicated to empowering voters,” she said. “We help citizens understand they can be part of the process.”
She said the bill goes a long way to curing some of the issues that exist now.
It is difficult for people to understand what qualifies for absentee voting and what does not, she noted.
“People make adult decisions for themselves,” Tentarelli said. “If they work, they still should be able to vote absentee.”
Similarly she said you can tell people they can register to vote with their town or city clerk, but in small towns, the clerks have limited hours and they coincide with a person’s working hours.
Supervisors of the Checklists used to have a certain time to meet, but that has been changed to a range of times, Tentarelli said, so it is confusing.
Two people signed in opposing the change, but did not testify, and two people signed in supporting the bill, but also did not testify.
The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.
When similar absentee ballot provisions were introduced last session, the bill was killed along partisan lines with Republican opposing and Democrats supporting.
SB 427 is sponsored by the senate’s 10 Democrats and House Assistant Minority Leader David Cote, D-Nashua.
The committee did approve 5-0 Senate Bill 425, which would establish an electronic information portal for election information.
The bill would allow voters to register electronically, as well as change information such as addresses or party affiliation and to apply for an absentee ballot.
The portal would be expensive to establish because safeguards are needed to identify the person and to recognize that person when he or she returns to use it again, explained Denis Goulet, Department of Information Technology Commissioner.
He said other agencies would also use the system once it was established.
“The demand for online services has skyrocketed because of COVID,” Goulet said, noting that federal American Rescue Plan Act money may be available to cover some of the costs.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.