It was readily apparent even before the recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases elsewhere in the country that absentee voting would have heightened importance amidst concerns about voter and election official safety at the polls during the pandemic. Certainly, the debacles witnessed during primary voting earlier this year in Wisconsin and Georgia sounded loud alarms that, in states that don’t allow general voting by mail, coronavirus concerns will seriously threaten Americans’ willingness, and even ability, to exercise their most fundamental and cherished right come the fall elections.
New Hampshire is one of those states, but its officials have acted to provide all entitled to vote in this fall’s primary and general elections with enhanced means to register to vote and cast absentee ballots by mail. Even so, the process is time-consuming. With the state primary election looming on Sept. 8 — and, depending on the city or town, the cutoff for advance voter registration can range from six to 13 days before — voters would do well to promptly complete and submit the necessary paperwork to ensure their votes will count.
In past years, absentee registration and voting has been an option only when a voter is unable to appear in person due to absence or disability. Earlier in the spring, however, Gov. Chris Sununu made it clear that he favored expanding absentee voting this year because of voter discomfort during the pandemic.
His is a nuanced position, as it allows the governor to cling to his oft-stated opposition to general mail-in voting. Indeed, Sununu last week vetoed, as he did last year, a bill passed by the Democratic-led Legislature to authorize any voter to cast an absentee ballot without needing an excuse and to allow online voter registration. Even if calculated, though, the governor’s embrace of absentee voting during the public health emergency is welcome, particularly in the face of President Trump’s repeated, and as yet unsupported, claims that mail-in voting leads to widespread voter fraud. And if this fall’s cycle goes smoothly, Sununu should reassess his opposition.
In April and June, Secretary of State William Gardner and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald issued guidance for this year’s elections consistent with the governor’s position. Under the guidance, all voter registration applicants and all registered voters will be allowed to certify in the necessary paperwork to their concerns for COVID-19 and be allowed to register and vote by mail in the primary and the general election, provided they otherwise qualify and, in the case of registering to vote, submit the necessary supporting documentation.
Since then, the Legislature has passed a bill, applicable to only this fall’s election cycle, that would streamline the required paperwork and allow voters to request absentee ballots for both the primary and general elections with a single application. The governor is expected to sign the bill, given that it would codify much of his attorney general’s and the secretary of state’s guidance and also adopts recommendations of a special elections task force formed to address safe voting this year.
But completing and submitting the necessary forms to the applicable city or town clerk through the mail, and receiving and mailing back absentee ballots, will take time, and it’s concerning that there were reports in other states earlier this year of large numbers of absentee ballots arriving too late to be counted. Adding further concern, a surge in registering and voting by mail is likely this fall and may strain local officials’ ability to act promptly.
Of course, eligible residents can still register to vote in person either at their clerk’s office before the pre-election registration period closes or at the polls on election day. Similarly, voters may apply for absentee ballots at their clerk’s office.
But anyone feeling concern about voting in the current public health climate would be wise to start the mail-in process sooner rather than later.
“Voters can really, really help if they act early,” Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan told the Granite State News Collaborative recently, urging that they “[g]et registered well before the election.” Heeding his advice will not only help local election officials deal with the expected surge in remote registration and voting, but also ensure fuller and safe participation by voters in this fall’s elections.
For more detailed information, either call your city or town clerk or visit the secretary of state’s COVID-19 emergency voting web page at http://sos.nh.gov/VotingEmergency.aspx