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Gardner recounts successes of NH's Election Day process

New Hampshire Sunday News

January 12. 2013 11:37PM

When it comes to how New Hampshire runs elections, don't mess with success, Secretary of State William Gardner implored lawmakers last week.

Appearing before the House Election Law Committee, Gardner released statistics that show the state had the third-highest turnout in the nation in November's presidential election.

According to data compiled by George Mason University's United States Election Project, 67.8 percent of the state's voting-age population voted on Nov. 6, casting a total of 718,830 ballots.

Only Minnesota and Wisconsin had higher turnouts, 71.3 percent and 69.4 percent, respectively. Iowa, the first caucus state, was right behind New Hampshire, with a 67.1 percent turnout.

And New Hampshire looks even better if you calculate turnout among registered voters. There are currently 876,469 names on voter checklists in New Hampshire, according to Gardner. That means 82 percent of those registered to vote did so on Nov. 6.

After the controversial 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), giving states both mandates and funding to improve elections. That could include replacing voting machines, educating voters and improving access.

But 12 years and $3 billion later, all those efforts did little to boost turnout in many places, Gardner says.

The national voter turnout rate on Nov. 6 was 53.6 percent, according to GMU data. That's better than the 50 percent turnout in 2000 but below the 55.4 percent in 2004 and 56.9 percent in 2008. And going back to 1992, the national turnout rate was 55.23 percent.

New Hampshire didn't go in for some of the strategies other states used to try to boost participation, Gardner said, such as early voting, "no-fault" absentee balloting (allowing absentee voting for any reason) and touch-screen machines.

"They have everything imaginable," he said. "You can vote in supermarkets in Texas."

Here, voters fill out paper ballots that are either read by machines or counted by hand. And most vote only on Election Day, with a very low number of absentee ballots.

Gardner believes all that makes a difference. "The vibrancy, the feeling of doing that on Election Day - when you compare it to the states that have all these other things, they're in the bottom," he said.

According to federal statistics, New Hampshire received $16.6 million in HAVA funding through the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2010, but spent only about a third of that.

According to Gardner, New Hampshire used its HAVA funding to create a statewide database of voter checklists, and to purchase fax-based systems that enable disabled individuals to vote.

In that same time period, Hawaii got about $1 million more than New Hampshire and spent 58 percent of it, but was still at the bottom when it comes to voter turnout, with just 40 percent of its voting-age population showing up to vote on Nov. 6.

The three biggest states are also among the worst when it comes to turnout, Gardner noted. New York got $238 million in HAVA funding and had a turnout rate of 46.1 percent on Nov. 6. California got nearly $349 million and had a 45.1 percent turnout, the nation's third-lowest. Texas, which received $203 million, was at 41.7 percent.

Some states with high numbers of non-citizens or prisoners contend that using their "voting-eligible" populations is a better way to calculate turnout, Gardner noted.

If you eliminate those ineligible to vote (prisoners, felons, non-citizens), 70.1 percent of New Hampshire's "voting-eligible" population cast ballots for President, putting the state fourth behind Minnesota (75.7), Wisconsin (72.5) and Colorado (71.1), according to the GMU data.

Looking back at turnout data for the past 20 years of presidential elections, Gardner said, the trend is clear: "We have been going up and up and up and up, and all these other states have gone the other way. They have bought this modern equipment that led to unintended consequences."

For instance, he said, many states purchased touch-screen voting machines to replace the old-fashioned voting booths such as we have here. But some purchased too few machines, limiting how many people can vote at one time and leading to long lines, he said.

Meanwhile, distrust of computerized voting machines that leave no paper trail led many states to allow early voting or absentee voting for any reason, Gardner said.

New Hampshire has done none of those things but has moved from 15th in the nation in 1992 to the third-highest turnout in 2012, he said.

Election Day here wasn't without problems.

Anne Edwards, associate attorney general, supervises elections for the AG's Office and handles complaints about voting problems.

Many communities, including Raymond, Londonderry and Merrimack, reported long lines, primarily due to the large numbers of people waiting to register to vote. And a series of motor vehicle crashes on the Everett Turnpike left some voters stuck in traffic too long to make it to the polls, she said.

In Manchester, an additional municipal ballot caused vote-reading machines to jam or get backed up, Edwards said.

The Attorney General's Office opened 41 official investigations from Election Day complaints. That brings to 203 the current number of investigations stemming from the presidential election season, dating back to September, 2010, she said.

They include complaints about voting machines, electioneering, poll closing times and robo-calls, Edwards said. There were complaints about calls reminding people to vote "tomorrow" that apparently mistakenly went out on Tuesday instead of Monday.

And on Election Day in Nashua, there were allegations that "some older voters received calls saying they would be picked up the next day to vote," she said. "That one, we're not convinced it was an accident."

Edwards said her office will issue a report on Jan. 31 to the Legislature, outlining the total number of election complaints and any actions taken to date.

Given the new voter ID requirements and the large number of people registering to vote on Election Day, Edwards said, the process went remarkably smoothly. Both she and Gardner credited the more than 6,000 municipal election officials who worked long hours that day.

"Their job is unbelievable, and the amount of people they saw that day and the amount of humor they had to use to keep the lines going is just amazing," Edwards said. "They were just fabulous."

Gardner said it's more evidence of what the right to vote - "the fundamental right that protects all other rights for all of our citizens" - means to people here.

"There is something about the community participating that day," he told lawmakers. "You feel part of something that's bigger than yourself."

Turnout should be their guide in any discussion of changing election laws, Gardner told the lawmakers, some of whom are newcomers to the Election Law Committee.

"What I want to say is we're doing okay," he said. "And I'm not sure we need to pick up ideas from other places to do better."

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