By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
The chairman of the state Republican Party said undeclared voters won’t be refused a Republican ballot in the next presidential primary election but the issue will be revisited at the party’s next annual meeting.
Chairman Chris Ager said when the state Republican party voted to restrict the primaries to registered Republicans in January, there were legal problems with the resolution written by GOP activist Karen Testerman.
“After investigating applicable state law in consultation with the Secretary of State’s office, it was determined that the resolution violated state law and could not be adopted,” Ager said. He said the resolution required registering as a Republican 30 days before the election to vote in the Republican primary, which violated state laws relative to same day voting and change of registration.
Secretary of State David Scanlan has made it clear there will be no change to how the first-in-the-nation primary will be held sometime in January.
Undeclared voters – who constitute the largest voting group in the state at 40 percent – will be able to do as they have for decades, he said. Undeclared voters can decide whether to take a Democratic or Republican ballot when they go to the polls to vote in a primary.
That registers the voter with that party unless the voter later changes their affiliation back to undeclared or a different party and each change request must be voted on by the local Supervisors of Checklist.
The next primary after the presidential primary will be the one for all state, county and federal offices in September 2024.
Ager said the next opportunity to address whether to block undeclared voters from taking a Republican ballot in primaries will be taken up Jan. 13, 2024 at the next Annual Republican Meeting.
“If a legal bylaw was adopted, it could be in force for the 2024 state primary,” Ager said. “My suggestion to the sponsors is to bring forth a Bylaw Amendment that complies with state law for consideration and critical analysis of the impact by the entire Committee. I will help sponsors through the process as desired to ensure the activity meets required standards,” Ager said.
Testerman said, “This is a game that’s being played. The chairman says he follows the rules to the letter. He should have submitted a letter of the vote of the party to close the primary to undeclared voters” to the Secretary of State, Testerman said.
Instead Ager decided to have a meeting with Scanlan when he should have submitted the letter, she said.
Testerman said she originally filed the resolution as a proposed bylaw but was told it should be submitted as a resolution.
She explained why she doesn’t want undeclared voters voting in Republican primaries.
“Why would you want the volleyball team to come over and tell your golf club who its director should be,” Testerman said.
She pointed to 3,542 Democrats who recently changed party affiliation to undeclared. And 408 Democrats switched to Republican.
Testerman said she was concerned about reports that Democrats are switching to Republicans so they can vote against former President Donald Trump in the primary.
Scanlan recently announced that 4,920 voters changed party affiliations between Sept. 14 and Oct. 7, the deadline to change party affiliation before the presidential primary.
The number of Democrats who switched to undeclared was 3,542. The number of Republicans who switched to Democrats was 78 and Republicans to undeclared 719.
Ager said there needs to be rigorous debate and an awareness of unintended consequences such as alienating undeclared voters in changing the bylaws.
“My primary purpose is to help get Republicans elected and represent the views of the State Committee,” Ager said.
Ager said the resolution to limit primary voting in the Republican primaries to registered Republicans was approved Jan. 28, the same day he was elected chairman.
Ager said resolutions are not binding and represent the sense of the committee.
Ray Buckley, chairman of the state Democratic party said on Twitter: “This law has been well known for years. The law is clear. There should not be any confusion. That said, closing a party’s primary to undeclared voters is not a winning strategy for that party.”
Scanlan also pointed to state law that says there could be no change to the first-in-the-nation primary because Ager didn’t send him a letter before the candidate filings opened Oct. 11 stating there had been a bylaw change prohibiting undeclared voters to vote in primary elections.
Scanlan said he has not received a letter from the chairman of the Republican party about any rule change to the contrary so 320,000 undeclared voters will not be kept from voting in the Republican presidential primary.
“I have received no such letter that would require me to make any change,” Scanlan said. “The presidential primary will be conducted in the same manner it has been conducted for decades.”
Testerman said she disagrees with Scanlan’s interpretation of the law.
“It says in order to permit undeclared voters to vote in a party primary, (Scanlan) needs a letter of permission to do so,” Testerman said. The letter needs to come from the chairman of the political party, and that has never happened, Testerman said.
“They have been conducting primary elections wrong all these years,” Testerman said.
The law states: “The secretary of state shall include on the voter instruction cards required by RSA658:28 whether a party rule has been adopted which permits a person who is registered as an undeclared voter to vote in the party’s primary. The party chairman shall notify the secretary of state in writing prior to the filing period for state offices whether the party has adopted such a rule….”
Testerman of Franklin is the chairman of the Merrimack County Republican Committee and ran unsuccessfully against Gov. Chris Sununu in the last two Republican primaries.
The issue was first raised publicly in a news release from the grass-roots group Citizens for Belknap Wednesday night.
It said the state GOP was invoking an arcane rule giving parties the ability to tell the state who can vote in their party’s primary.
“In an attempt to bypass the legislature, the new resolution found a loophole in New Hampshire’s statute (659:14), which appears to permit a party to close its primary without legislation,” the release said.
“If the resolution document is accurate, independent voters in Belknap County and around the state will be outraged by this effort to deny New Hampshire citizens a cherished right which they have held for decades,” said Al Posnack, co-chair of Citizens for Belknap.