The coronavirus pandemic has altered the routines and responsibilities of all sorts of people, and that includes the people who will be overseeing elections later this year.
In Marlborough the town health officer has been drawn into discussions about how to handle in-person voting for the Sept. 8 state primary and the Nov. 3 general election.
In Harrisville local officials have talked about the possibility of drive-thru voting. They’ve also looked for an alternative to the traditional polling place of town hall.
In Bennington, when mid-year tax bills go out, authorities say they’ll include a letter about how to get an absentee ballot for upcoming elections. This comes after Gov. Chris Sununu announced that any voter who has worries about COVID-19 will be permitted to vote by mail this year.
In Keene, acting on that same announcement, the city clerk’s office purchased five additional optical scanners to handle an expected avalanche of absentee ballots. In a normal year in New Hampshire, fewer than 10 percent of voters file absentee; this year estimates run to well over 50 percent.
I recently came upon this information while surveying local election officials about voting during a time of pandemic. I’m a member of an unaffiliated citizens group called Monadnock United whose members believe that the right to vote — indeed the duty to vote — shouldn’t be accompanied by worries about catching a potentially deadly disease.
To help guide state election officials on safe voting, including how to spend $3.2 million of specially designated federal aid toward that purpose, Sununu appointed a committee to come up with advice.
The Select Committee on 2020 Emergency Election Support conducted many hours of hearings, and is scheduled to begin drafting a report this week. It’s a complicated job. “There are a lot of components to this thing,” Brad Cook, the chairman, said during a public meeting last week — and at the moment he was talking only about the configuration of absentee ballots and the envelopes that contain them.
There are many other complications to elections at a time of pandemic, including physical distancing in polling places, who pays the postage for absentee ballots, who pays for disinfectants and protective gear for election workers and whether voters who aren’t wearing masks can legally be turned away at the door. Then this: whether the time-consuming process of opening the envelopes within envelopes that contain absentee ballots can be handled the day before votes are counted.
Some people say that too much is being made of the virus and the vote, particularly when it comes to absentee voting. They say that people can line up at the polls the same way they line up at grocery stores — as if using a shopping cart is no different from entering a voting booth that an infected person just left.
Finally, this claim, most energetically issued recently by President Donald Trump without any supporting evidence: Absentee voting is rife with fraud. Even his own Commission on Election Integrity produced no validating proof before the group disbanded.
For his part, Sununu appears to have confidence in the integrity of New Hampshire’s election system, including the expanded use of absentee ballots.
Neither he nor Secretary of State Bill Gardner has said precisely what they want in terms of procedures — they say they’re waiting for advice from Cook’s committee.
The ultimate test of their commitment to safe voting will be whether they approach the job with a seriousness and rigor equal to that demonstrated by local election officials this year.