There are plenty of reasons for concern about how effectively the general election will be conducted across the country in November. Last week’s primary here in New Hampshire, however, can at least give Granite State voters more confidence the upcoming election can be conducted here as effectively as they should expect.
The questions surrounding holding an election in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic have been well publicized. At the polls themselves, can voters and poll workers alike remain safe while still processing votes efficiently? Equally — perhaps more — challenging, will the ballots of citizens voting by mail because they are uncomfortable or unable to vote in person be received and counted on time and accurately?
Although there were occasional hiccups — most prominently, perhaps, the topless voter in Exeter — New Hampshire answered those questions in the affirmative at last week’s primary. In this corner of the state, municipalities adopted various means to accommodate voters effectively and safely, including special arrangements to keep the maskless apart from voters who were respectful enough of others to wear masks. Surely there will need to be some fine-tuning of the arrangements before the Nov. 3 election. For example, many towns set up tents or other outdoor arrangements that may not work as well if Election Day turns out to be cold or wet. But given the many procedures implemented for the first time to address the public-health concerns, it appears state and local officials planned well and voting at the polls went smoothly.
Absentee voting also seemed to go smoothly across the state, even in the face of a surge in numbers. Earlier this year, the Legislature and Gov. Chris Sununu sensibly expanded absentee-voting eligibility to permit anyone concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic to register and vote by mail, and voters seized the opportunity in record numbers. In 2018 and 2016, the previous two statewide primaries, absentee balloting amounted to under 5 percent of the total. Last week, it was almost 30 percent, which was mirrored here in Cheshire County.
As in the case of in-person voting, there were few reports of problems. Even so, with the state’s COVID-19 expansion of absentee voting in place for the November election, state and local officials must anticipate an even greater surge in the general election. Chesterfield Town Moderator Brad Rosco observed about the increased mail-in ballot workload last week that “you’d be surprised at how long it takes to just slit open 300 envelopes.” No doubt there were also other lessons learned that will inform election officials as they refine their preparations for handling the even greater numbers in November.
While the primary gave state and local election officials the opportunity to test out arrangements on the election undercard, the November main event will be far more demanding. In the last presidential election cycle, nearly four times as many votes were cast in New Hampshire in the general election as in the September primary. With passions running sky-high again and record numbers of Granite Staters likely to submit absentee ballots, confidence in absentee voting will hinge as much on the post office as on election officials. As a result, those choosing to vote by mail should plan to apply for and return their ballots early to ensure they are received and counted come Election Day.
It would be comforting to think that the surge in mail-in balloting and in-person voting in the November election will be handled smoothly and effectively nationwide. The experience in at least some other states’ primaries this year casts this in doubt, and concerns about the ability of the Postal Service — and indeed the commitment of its leadership — have also raised legitimate concerns. How that plays out seems likely to be yet another tempestuous challenge to our democracy in already tempestuous times.
Last week’s primary at least provides comfort that officials in New Hampshire are developing a good game plan for handling the in-person and absentee challenges. It’s up to the rest of us to develop a sound voting plan, whether it be in person at the polls on Nov. 3 or by requesting and returning absentee ballots as soon as possible.
For information about registering and voting in the election, visit the Secretary of State’s website at https://sos.nh.gov/elections/voters/voting-during-covid-19-state-of-emergency.