When New Hampshire’s COVID-19 state of emergency expires, many of the ways voting in the state was altered during the pandemic will be reversed. But there are proposals — both in Concord and Washington — that are seeking to change that.
On Wednesday night, the Jonathan Daniels Center for Social Responsibility hosted a Q&A discussion about the pandemic and voting legislation with former state Sen. Melanie Levesque, a Democrat, and attorney Bradford Cook, a Republican. In a conversation mediated by former Sentinel editor and President James Rousmaniere, both weighed in on what the future of voting in New Hampshire should look like.
The discussion was also sponsored by The League of Women Voters NH and Open Democracy.
In the months following the 2020 presidential election, many — including supporters of former President Donald Trump, who made unfounded claims the election was stolen from him — have raised concerns about election fraud. This has been reflected both nationally and in states that have introduced legislation aimed at preserving election security. Opponents of these proposals argue they unreasonably restrict voter access.
Levesque and Cook expressed support for the measures taken during the public health crisis to make voting in New Hampshire easier by expanding absentee voting, permitting the use of ballot drop-boxes (as long as they were supervised) and allowing more creative options like drive-up voting.
“It was very controlled, and it worked very well,” said Cook, who chaired the state’s Select Committee on 2020 Emergency Election Support. “And there was a record turnout.”
But efforts to put some of those measures permanently on the books have seen mixed results. Levesque noted that N.H. Senate Bill 47 — which would have allowed for no-excuse absentee voting and early partial processing of absentee ballots — was killed.
However, SB 2, which focuses just on early partial processing of absentee ballots — in which the ballot’s outer envelope is opened ahead of the election, but not the inner envelope containing a person’s vote — has been retained in committee.
“It’s just one step that makes the whole process easier,” Levesque said.
Other bills, she feels, would do the opposite. She said there have been a number of bills proposed that would make voting more difficult for some groups, such as college students; make it more difficult to vote absentee; and remove New Hampshire’s same-day registration option.
New Hampshire currently does a solid job of balancing election security with election access, Cook said. It’s important not to lean too far to one side, which could risk either election interference on the one hand or voter suppression on the other, he said.
“The people that worry me the most are the ones that think there was fraud in that election and that somehow the election was stolen last year,” Cook said of the 2020 presidential race. “And they put in all these bills to make it harder to vote, thinking somehow they’re going to keep the people who ‘stole the election’ from stealing another one.”
Asked about election integrity in New Hampshire, the panelists said they had faith in the state’s system and that instances of voter fraud are rare.
Cook did, however, say he doesn’t agree with letting college students vote in the towns where they attend school, noting that he had to vote absentee in college. He and Levesque also disagree about the For the People Act, a federal bill that proposes a number of adjustments to voting standards across the U.S.
Levesque said the bill, which is awaiting a vote in the U.S. Senate, would do a lot of things — such as enabling same-day voter registration and automatic registration nationally — that many places are already doing successfully.
Cook said the 600-page bill is too long. And while some facets of the bill are good, he said, much of what it proposes would be unnecessary — such as automatic registration and portable registration (meaning people can vote in polling places away from home) — and already covered by the state’s same-day registration option. He is also adamantly opposed to measures that would take the voting process online, which he fears would make elections more susceptible to hacks.
On Wednesday, the N.H House Election Law Committee voted 11-8 along party lines to amend SB 89, an election omnibus bill, to include the assertion that if the For the People Act passes, New Hampshire would still make the rules for its state and local elections.
However, toward the end of Wednesday’s conversation, both Cook and Levesque agreed that one result of the emergency voting rules instituted last year was a dramatically higher voter turnout.
“Certainly the change in the rules accounted for the incredibly larger number of absentees,” Cook said. “But remember, last year, all across the country, Joe Biden got more votes than any person that ever ran for president. The second most votes of anybody that ever ran for president was President Trump’s vote last year.”
An addiction treatment provider is opening its third residential facility in Keene, in a space formerly occupied by another treatment center that recently shut down after more than 15 years in the city.
Manchester-based Live Free Recovery Services — which opened a 16-bed sober-living home for men on Court Street in November — moved into Phoenix House New England’s former Keene location and is reopening under Live Free’s name Thursday, according to its founder and CEO Ryan Gagne.
This comes two weeks after Live Free took over another sober-living program in the city.
Phoenix House New England closed its site at 106 Roxbury St. in March. Because of the building’s small size, President and CEO Peter Mumma said, keeping that facility open wasn’t financially feasible.
“Every program that has beds needs to have a certain census level of beds filled to cover its cost,” he explained in a text. “Over the years costs increased faster than insurance rates for payment so the breakeven census level became [too] high over time.”
Phoenix House’s Keene site offered residential care, partial hospitalization and outpatient services for behavioral health and substance use disorders. The facility also provided medication-assisted treatment for the latter and added intensive outpatient treatment last year.
The Keene location would need to hit about 93 percent occupancy to be sustainable, Mumma said, but was only around 75 percent.
Patients who used this facility have shifted to Phoenix House’s larger site in Dublin at 3 Pierce Road, which Mumma said offers the same services. Keene employees were also offered roles at the Dublin location, he said.
Fourteen beds moved from Keene to Dublin as part of this, Mumma said, bringing Dublin’s total to 49. Most patients using Keene’s outpatient services were doing so virtually.
Gagne cited Phoenix House’s closure in the Elm City as part of the reason for Live Free’s recent expansion.
“The local recovery community, and Keene as a whole, has been fantastic to us, as well as the clients,” he said, “and also with the reduction in programs with losing Phoenix House, the hole that creates is a big one, so we wanted to fill it as best we could.”
On Roxbury Street, Gagne said Live Free will offer an extended-care residential program, aimed at helping New Hampshire men who are just starting their recovery from alcohol or drugs.
Clients will stay at the “highly structured” 16-bed facility for 30 to 60 days, according to Gagne, who has been in recovery from alcohol and drugs since 2008.
During the day, he said, clients will attend clinical services off site, such as cooking classes, recovery meetings and enrichment activities. In the evening, Gagne said, they will come back to the facility and receive peer-based services.
This is similar to Live Free’s program at 361 Court St., which offers the same services but clients stay for 30 to 45 days.
Live Free also took over Keene’s Prospect House sober-living facility on Water Street earlier this month.
The former owners, Winchester’s Suzanne and David Boisvert, started the facility for men in 2018 after witnessing a loved one struggle with addiction.
Suzanne Boisvert told The Sentinel on Tuesday that their goal was to get the program up and running, and now that it is, they felt it was time to let someone else take over.
“There were no sober houses in our county prior to Prospect House opening, and I was passionate about seeing that change,” she said. “... Ryan came into our community, and he has a whole staff of qualified and wonderful folks, so I thought it was a good time to hand him the reins.”
She added her next goal is to open a sober home for women on Church Street, and she hopes to sell the home to a substance-use treatment provider before it opens.
“We are grateful to have helped to continue this valuable service and for all the work they did,” Gagne said. “It’s our honor to carry that on.”
The 16-bed Prospect House property, which has been renamed Prospect House at Live Free, is for New Hampshire men who are well into their recovery, according to Gagne.
“It’s a long-term option for the clients we already have, allowing for nine months to a year of continuous care,” he said.
Clients will actively work on the 12 steps of recovery and have family, group and one-on-one meetings. Medication-assisted treatment is also available, administering methadone and Suboxone — medications that treat opioid addiction. The medication is often coupled with counseling and behavioral therapies.
Meditation, vocational training and recreational activities are also offered, according to Live Free’s website.
Gagne added that all of Live Free’s facilities are adhering to strict COVID-19 guidelines, such as pre-admission testing, testing while enrolled and individual rooms for a majority of clients.
“This allows folks to feel safe when entering treatment,” he said, “so we don’t have to add another barrier.”
Live Free Recovery Services can be reached at 877-9757.
For immediate assistance, Cheshire County residents can visit The Doorway — a referral hub for people to get help with substance use disorders — at 24 Railroad St. in Keene. The Doorway is open Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Support through the state’s 24/7 hotline is available at 211.
A Senate committee put limits around one “vaccine freedom” bill Wednesday, but another much broader one may be headed over from the House.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee passed an amended version of House Bill 220, which seeks to allow most people to refuse any vaccine or medical intervention. The amended version limits the bill to COVID-19 vaccines; eliminates the right to refuse medical intervention; covers only governmental entities, not private employers; and allows county nursing homes, the state hospital, and the state prison to still mandate vaccination and medical interventions.
The amended bill also creates a committee to study policies for medical intervention and immunizations.
Next up is Rep. Terry Roy’s last-minute, unrelated amendment to Senate Bill 155, which addresses the governor’s pandemic-related emergency orders. The House Executive Departments and Administration Committee took nearly three hours of testimony on the amendment Tuesday. Roy, a Deerfield Republican, chaired Tuesday’s public hearing over objections of committee members and refused to take questions after testifying on his amendment.
Roy’s amendment is wide-reaching: It prohibits private and public K-12 schools, colleges, and employers from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations and prevents most public and private “entities” from asking about a person’s vaccination status.
It would also outlaw sharing anyone’s vaccination status without permission and a vaccine registry, something the federal government requires for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Like the public hearing on House Bill 220, Tuesday’s hearing included testimony from liberty rights advocates and out-of-state doctors, one of whom said the vaccine shouldn’t be mandated for anyone under 65 because for them COVID-19 is 99.99 percent survivable. He did not mention COVID-19 long-haul symptoms that occur among all ages and can be prevented by the vaccine, according to the CDC. He also claimed 4,000 people have died from the vaccine, something the CDC has said is not true.
When Beth Daly, chief of the state Bureau of Infectious Disease, called the testimony “psuedo-science” and inaccurate, Roy asked her to refrain from characterizing others’ testimony and to “stick with what you know.” Daly replied, “I do think it’s within the realm of my testimony to tell you when things are not true. It’s not true, and it’s dangerous to imply or say otherwise.”
Sen. Tom Sherman, a Rye Democrat who is also a gastroenterologist, testified against Roy’s bill and raised the same concerns in committee on Senate Bill 155. An individual’s liberty, he said, should end where it puts others in danger.
“A vaccine benefits everyone — these are infectious diseases,” Sherman said. “The science, the public health reasons, the studies, and everything else shows to be life-saving and can improve the quality of life. Long-haul COVID is not a place you want to be. You may survive COVID, but you may have it for the rest of your life. Let’s follow the science because it’s very clear.”
The House Election Law Committee approved a proposal Wednesday that would create separate processes for state and federal elections, in response to federal voting reform currently before the U.S. Congress.
In a vote along party lines, the House panel approved the amendment, 11-8. The amendment was added to Senate Bill 89, bipartisan omnibus legislation dealing with election law, which was also approved along party lines.
Opponents say that having two separate processes would cause confusion among voters and double the workload of local election officials, while proponents are billing it as an issue of local control to push back on what they see as federal overreach. Both sides say cost is an issue, but the amendment did not include a fiscal note with additional details.
The amendment was introduced last week by Rep. Barbara Griffin, a Goffstown Republican. Wednesday’s public hearing had the most people signed up to testify before the Election Law Committee so far this session. The vote on the amendment was held the same day.
Similar legislation was introduced in Texas, House Bill 4507, which would have required separate registration for state and federal elections. That effort was defeated in the Republican-controlled House. Currently, there are no states with a two-tier voting or registration system.
Kyri Claflin, a supervisor of the checklist in Concord Ward 5, called the proposal a “nightmare” for election officials.
“The amendment doubles the work for election officials because you would have one set of laws and procedures that apply to federal elections and a second set of laws and procedures that apply to local and state elections,” Claflin said during a press conference held by the For the People Act New Hampshire Coalition before the hearing.
Claflin said the amendment would create “an unworkable situation” for local election officials.
“Confusion is a tool to keep people away from the polls,” said Elizabeth Corell, a ward supervisor of the checklist in Concord. Corell said the procedure manual is already 380 pages, and having two checklists would be “mind-boggling and quite frustrating.”
“We do this because we care, but the harder you make it the harder it will be to find people like us to carry out this job,” she said.
Rep. Timothy Horrigan, a Durham Democrat, called the amendment “massively premature” since the federal legislation has not yet been approved.
But the proposal has the support of the Secretary of State’s Office, which hosted a controversial briefing on the For the People Act last month. Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan expressed his support for the amendment, testifying on behalf of the office.
Scanlan called the For the People Act a “federal takeover of the state election process.” He said the problems the For the People Act sets out to address — onerous voter identification requirements, burdensome voter registration procedures, limited and unequal access to voting by mail, and polling place closures, among others — aren’t problems that exist in New Hampshire.
But Rep. Manny Espitia, a Nashua Democrat, testified that there are voters in New Hampshire who have been turned away to vote, such as newly naturalized citizens who were told they needed to have the precise date of their naturalization in order to register. Espitia said that misinformation prevented them from registering and subsequently voting.
“Because of that, they were denied the right to vote,” Espitia said during the hearing.
Scanlan said the federal legislation raised concerns about ballot harvesting, and that it could make it more difficult to maintain accurate checklists of eligible voters.
“I think this amendment fires a shot across the bow to Congress about the wisdom of passing such legislation that would be a federal takeover of our election,” Scanlan told the House panel on Wednesday.
Olivia Zink, the executive director of Open Democracy, called the For the People Act the largest election reform in the past 50 years, and said the measures were “common-sense standards,” such as same-day voter registration and online voter registration.
In Wednesday’s executive session, the House Election Law committee also voted down a Republican-sponsored online voter information portal, part of Senate Bill 83. That proposal would have allowed voters to update their registration, file a new registration, or request an absentee ballot.
“Today was a loss for voters and for local election officials and for the health of our democracy,” said Lucas Meyer, chairman of 603 Forward.
“It isn’t every day in New Hampshire that you get bipartisan agreement on modernization reforms for our elections, so to see the House recklessly vote these bills down is concerning for the future of our ability in the Legislature for folks to come together to get things done,” Meyer said.
The proposals will now be voted on in the House.