Swanzey drop box

A drop box in Swanzey previously had a sign on top of it, as shown Wednesday, noting voters could leave absentee ballots there for the town clerk. State law forbids such practices using unmanned drop boxes. Ballots aren’t legal unless a local elections official accepts them and verifies who dropped them off. The sign was gone by Thursday afternoon.

SWANZEY — Swanzey’s unmanned drop box in front of Town Hall no longer instructs voters to place absentee ballots there, a practice that runs contrary to state law when a member of the clerk’s office is not present.

Asked in an email Friday why the town had been instructing voters to use the drop box, Town Clerk Ron Fontaine wrote that it was a misunderstanding.

Typically, New Hampshire communities don’t accept absentee ballots via drop box at all, according to Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan; they must be submitted by mail or in person. But earlier this year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Chris Sununu signed House Bill 1266 into law, temporarily adding extra accommodations for people who want to avoid crowded polling places.

This includes allowing ballots to be accepted by drop box, so long as the box is staffed by someone from a city or town clerk’s office.

Earlier this week, Fontaine told The Sentinel that the town was permitting voters to use the Town Hall drop box for their ballots. But he said the clerk’s office was not staffing the box, which is a permanent fixture that’s usually used to collect payments, registrations and other paperwork related to town business. He said the box is locked, except during hourly checks by town employees when Town Hall is open.

On Wednesday afternoon, a sign was taped to the top of the box that said ballots should be put inside, but it was gone by Thursday afternoon.

To properly staff a drop box, Scanlan said, a member of the clerk’s office must be physically present at the box to ensure that voters are who they say they are. Voters can also designate a delivery agent, who is required to fill out an affidavit when they deliver the ballot attesting that they are authorized to do so.

“They have to be staffed so that the person from the clerk’s office can verify that it was the voter that brought [the ballot] in,” Scanlan said. “Or if it’s a delivery agent, to fill out the paperwork required.”

Several area municipalities, including Keene, have said that being unable to designate a clerk’s office employee to man a drop box is the main reason they don’t have one.

According to Scanlan, accepting ballots via an unmanned drop box does not conform with state law. He added that “any ballot simply dropped off and not received by a member of the clerk’s office should be rejected.”

Only if the ballot is “cured,” he said, can it be officially accepted.

“Cure means a voter would have to come in and see the ballot in the envelope and say, ‘Yes that is my absentee ballot,’ ” he said.

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter