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January 14. 2014 12:15PM

Secretary of State opposes move to open ballots to public view

CONCORD -- The state office that oversees elections is opposing a bill that would open individual ballots to public view after an election.

Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan told the House Election Law Committee Tuesday that House Bill 1357, if passed, could open elections to corruption.

"Hopefully," Scanlan said, "you trust your local moderator" and other election officials "to make sure they are running the election in your town in a fair and impartial way."

Deborah Sumner, a former election clerk in Jaffrey has argued that the public has a right to view and verify election results upon request and without a court order.

She has challenged the existing law in court.

Sumner told the committee that New Hampshire is among five states that "guarantee citizens' right to know in its Constitution.

She said at least 25 states "have protected the rare and legitimate privacy issues and allow public review of ballots after the recount period has ended."

Sumner in 2012 asked a court to order that all Jaffrey ballots from the Nov. 2, 2010 election be preserved for her review. But she said she later learned that the town had destroyed the ballots.

Scanlan said that in 2003, his office received requests from "educational groups" to see the ballots. At that point the Secretary of State asked the Legislature to expressly exempt ballots from the right-to-know law.

"If you make our ballots subject to inspection under the right-to-know law," Scanlan said, "you open up the possibility of bribery and intimidation to become part of the process. It is important that elections have finality to them" following any recount or challenge request by candidates.

"If you allow access to ballots by groups or individuals that may have motives that are not in the best interest of the state, they can read those ballots and reach different interpretations and could raise issues that create doubt in the minds of the voters and those running for office, and we don't believe that that is appropriate," Scanlan said.

He said that while a member of the public does have "an inherent right" to see ballots, "there is a process through the courts and the person has also given that right to their elected representatives in their towns."

But Sumner said ballots were made exempt from the right-to-know law through an amendment that did not receive a public hearing.

She called on lawmakers "to repeal the unconstitutional exemption and develop reasonable guidelines for public review.

"There is no evidence that the removal of this fundamental right of citizens has ever been discussed in the House or Senate," said Sumner. "If the Legislature decides to remove a fundamental right from the people, that you have no authority to remove, citizens should first have the opportunity" for a public hearing and to have a roll call vote among lawmakers for a roll call."


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