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Absentee ballot proposal gaining support from NH Dems

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 14. 2018 12:38AM

KEVIN CAVANAUGH (Union Leader file photo)

CONCORD — Democrats are getting behind a proposal by state Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh to broadly expand the use of absentee ballots in New Hampshire by including forecasts of bad weather as a legal reason to request one.

The Manchester Democrat on Tuesday promised to introduce legislation to that effect, if he’s re-elected in November.

Cavanaugh’s proposal was endorsed by Democratic candidates for state Senate in District 12, Reps Melanie Levesque of Brookline and Tom Falter of Greenville.

District 12 includes the town of Rindge, whose local officials received a cautionary note from the Attorney General last week after they encouraged voters to obtain absentee ballots in the March town election.

For the second year in a row, a major snowstorm was looming on town election day, and Rindge officials wanted people who don’t like bad weather driving to still be able to vote.

In a June 8 letter to a Rindge Board of Selectmen member, the town clerk, moderator and police chief, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Broadhead, with the Election Law Unit, reported receiving several complaints about the notices.

State law allows four reasons to vote by absentee ballot: out of town on election day; observing a religious holiday; inability to vote due to disability; or an employment obligation.

“The mere possibility of a blizzard is not, by itself, a lawful reason to request an absentee ballot,” wrote Broadhead.

Proposed change

Cavanaugh proposes to change that, with the addition of “inclement weather” as an allowable reason to request an absentee ballot.

“In the 2017 and 2018 town elections, voters were forced to choose between their safety and voting because the impending storm was not an allowable reason to vote by absentee. It’s past time for New Hampshire to revisit our absentee ballot request process,” he said.

Cavanaugh said town officials in Rindge “made the common sense decision in March of 2018 to allow voters to vote by absentee knowing that the storm may prevent them from making it to the polls on election day.”

Falter and Levesque, competing in the Democratic primary for the right to challenge Republican incumbent Sen. Kevin Avard, issued a joint statement.

“Voting rights are an issue that transcends a partisan primary. We are proud to be unified in our support of increasing access to the ballot box through expanded absentee voting and we commend the town officials who chose to increase safety and political participation by encouraging absentee voting,” their statement said. “We both would support legislation that adds inclement weather to the allowable reasons for requesting an absentee ballot.”

Democratic candidates for governor also endorsed the idea. “New Hampshire voters should always be able to cast their ballot, regardless of weather conditions,” said former state Sen. Molly Kelly.

Former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand took it a step further.

“I support no-excuse absentee voting,” he said. “Twenty-seven states, ranging from Kansas and Idaho to California and Vermont, offer this option. It would expand and simplify access to the ballot and remove the need for officials to make a judgment call based on the weather.”

Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern, now running for secretary of state, jumped on the bandwagon.

“Allowing voters to use an absentee ballot in order to stay safe in a blizzard is just plain common-sense,” he said. “It’s time to expand absentee ballot access and ensure voting is safe, accessible, secure and hassle-free for voters and town officials alike.”

Not the real solution

Republican state Rep. David Bates, R-Windham, who’s been active on many election-related bills, favors a different solution.

“Personally, like Secretary of State Bill Gardner, I am not in favor of expanding unnecessarily the reasons for the use of absentee ballots,” said Bates. “The real solution is to fix the real problem, and pass legislation that we failed to pass in the last session, that creates a reasonable mechanism to allow for postponement of elections in those rare instances where you have an extreme weather event or other emergency.”

The House and Senate deadlocked on competing measures to solve a problem the state has faced for the past two town elections in March 2017 and 2018. In both years, officials in some communities wanted to reschedule voting because of an impending storm, but were told by state officials they could not.

A bill in the Senate gave the final word on such postponement to the secretary of state, while a House bill empowered town moderators. House and Senate negotiators could not agree on a compromise, so the status quo remains in effect.

“Absentee ballots are the easy way out, but not a solution,” said Bates. “The real fix is to create a proper process for postponing elections, and an absentee ballot isn’t going to fix it for everybody.”

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