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Senate panel approves COVID-induced voting changes

By Garry Rayno - InDepthNH | Jun 26, 2020

CONCORD — Voting will be different this year with the coronavirus pandemic and state officials are taking steps to protect the health of voters and election workers.

The Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee Thursday agreed 4-1 to temporarily change state law to expand absentee voting so voters can avoid the polls with less exposure for election workers.

Some of the recommendations of the Secretary of State’s Select Committee on 2020 Emergency Election Support need law changes to be implemented although many do not.

The committee Thursday held a public hearing on a bill to make the needed changes. The bill was generally supported but some concerns were raised by municipal officials and others.

The amendment proposed by select committee member and Sen. Thomas Sherman, D-Rye, would add a new box to the absentee voter application for COVID-19, allow a person to request absentee ballots for both the primary and general election with one application, and allows election officials to begin processing absentee ballots before election day but not open or count them until the final tally after polls close.

Under the temporary changes for the 2020 elections, a person would not be able to vote at the polls during the first two hours, while withdrawing his or her absentee ballot as is currently allowed.

And a provision allowing 10 or more voters to postpone processing absentee ballots until after the polls close would also be suspended for this year’s elections.

Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said the provision to postpone the processing has never been utilized, but if it were during the upcoming elections with the expected greater number of absentee ballots, it could be very disruptive.

Town voting officials raised several concerns, chief of which is a section that would allow a voter who is at the polls but becomes concerned about the health risk to be allowed to vote outside “the guardrails” through the absentee process.

Several town clerks and committee members raised concerns, saying if too many voters took advantage of the provision at the same time, election workers could be overwhelmed.

A similar provision exists in law for disabled voters.

Hanover Town Clerk Betsy McClain suggested the section allowing for the clerk or other voting officials to go outside the polling area to allow a person to vote should be dropped.

She said the additional absentee ballots they expect will be challenging enough, and then opening it up to COVID concern at the polling place could make it very difficult to respond.

If someone has a difficult time finding a parking space or wants to be away from everyone else, she said, “we’re not a drive -through and eat in experience.”

Committee member Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, said she was concerned poll workers could be overwhelmed with a large influx and that could impact the chain of custody of absentee ballots.

Scanlan said his office is developing plans so poll workers can accommodate voters and keep them safe as they exercise their right to vote.

That may create another problem like the one Birdsell describes, he said, but his office will work with the Attorney General’s Office to train workers how to respond to those situations.

Another concern raised by local election officials was the differences between in-office voter registration and on-line, with several suggesting the affidavits available for in-person registration be available for on-line registration.

Several people testifying said absentee ballots should have a state-paid postage envelope to return absentee ballots, noting the state received CARES Act money to help with the election.

Louise Spencer of Concord, and co-founder of the Kent Street Coalition, said return postage, which was recommended by the select committee, should be part of the package.

The state received the CARES Act money and still has millions of dollars from the Help America Vote Act, she noted. “If ever it were a rainy day for using the HAVA funds,” Spencer said, “this would be it.”

Janet Ward of Hopkinton noted both she and her husband are over 70 years old and in the high risk category for COVID-19 infection.

All the work the special committee and lawmakers have done to make the 2020 elections safer will be for naught, she said, if the changes are not publicized throughout the state so people know they can vote by absentee ballot.

Brad Cook, the chair of the special committee as well as the Ballot Law Commission, agreed.

“I agree completely, a massive publicity campaign is important and going to happen,” Cook said, and “most of the recommendations will be implemented.”

After the public hearing, the committee could not agree whether to retain the language for voting outside the polls if someone is concerned about COVID-19 election day and decided to continue talking over the weekend to try to reach a compromise.

If they can, an amendment will be introduced during the Senate session Monday.

The bill to change the statutes was approved by the committee 4-1.

If the Senate approves the bill, it will go to the House which meets Tuesday at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire’s Durham campus.

If the House approves, the bill will go to the governor.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

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