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BILL GARDNER 

NH skips trend in other states of early voting


MANCHESTER — Nearly three times the number of people who live in New Hampshire had already voted in Florida by Friday.

National studies conclude that by Election Day Nov. 8, almost four out of every 10 registered, U.S. voters will have cast their ballots.

The rolling tally was 21 million ballots as of Sunday afternoon, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida.

Only those who qualify under a rigid definition to get an absentee ballot can vote early in New Hampshire.

“New Hampshire does have a unique culture of civic engagement, but we are at risk of becoming last in the nation in voter convenience and using technology to save our taxpayers time and money spent waiting in line,” said Paula Hodges, state director of America Votes, the pre-eminent national group pushing for election reforms.

Yet the state’s top election official and the longest-serving secretary of state in the country would not have it any other way.

“Early voting has the opposite effect; it cheapens the value of the day itself,” said Secretary of State Bill Gardner.

“With early voting for weeks if not months, by the time the real day comes, nobody pays much attention to it. Here the whole campaign builds to that crescendo on Election Day.”

This past Monday, Massachusetts became the 37th state along with the District of Columbia to offer some form of early voting. In the Bay State’s case, it’s an 11-day window at city and town halls that ends this Friday.

Maine and Vermont have had a 45-day window in which voters can request a ballot for any reason and cast it early.

New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut are the New England holdouts. In those three states, voters with a conflict that prevents them from getting to the polls on Nov. 8 can request an absentee ballot.

Gardner said he’s convinced the easier you make voting, the less likely it is people will participate.

“It’s hard to be against it because society today is all about making it more convenient,” Gardner said.

New Hampshire has consistently been in the top 10 in voter turnout for two decades. But New Hampshire always trails Maine.

Then in 2012, New Hampshire shot up to third and Maine dropped to fifth.

“I called (Maine Secretary of State) Matt Dunlap and asked had they changed any of their election laws since the last presidential election. Sure enough they did — no-excuse, absentee voting,” Gardner said.
early voting facts

Demographics drive NH

But Michael O’Brien, political director for America Votes, said New Hampshire’s high turnout is driven by demographics — a growing elderly population, few, high-density cities and a well-educated, healthy and relatively wealthy population.

“Manchester has about 50 percent voter registration, but you go next door to Auburn, a small town where I live, it’s 85 percent,” O’Brien said.

Gardner said the poster child of early voting — Oregon — is his best case study.

In 1998, Oregon became the first state to move to eliminate voting in person and now it’s all done by mail. Washington and Colorado have since followed suit.

“For 10 years, (former Oregon Secretary of State) Phil Keisling pushed me to adopt it. He said we’d have it on both coasts and it would just sweep the nation,” Gardner said.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s presidential turnout ranking has dropped, the latest down to 13th in 2012.

State Rep. Kathi Rogers, D-Concord, rejects Gardner’s reasoning.

“The argument that you have to come to the polls or there will be all kinds of fraud and there will be lower turnout, I just don’t buy it,” Rogers said.

“People do their banking, pay their bills, even get their blood pressure checked online. We should keep up with the modern times, but our secretary of state has chosen to just disregard that.”

Rogers had a diverse coalition pushing early voting legislation in New Hampshire — from Citizens Alliance of New Hampshire and the American Civil Liberties Union to the Fair Elections Legal Network and the League of Women Voters.

And they’ve fallen flat.

“The most popular argument for something is we’ve always done it this way,” Rogers said. “The most popular one against a bill is we’ve never done it that way.”

In 2015, the House killed on a voice vote a constitutional amendment to allow all residents to vote by absentee ballot.

Then last spring, the House voted, 287-66, to kill Rogers’ mail-in voting measure after Gardner’s office warned it would cost 40 cents per voter.

In a different measure, lawmakers did give Rogers “a crumb” as she called it, a change to let caregivers for children or the infirm to qualify for an absentee ballot.

Research: Lower turnout

Some of the influential, early research is in Gardner’s camp.

“We conclude that early voting might bring out some new voters, but on net it reduces turnout by robbing Election Day of its stimulating effects,” concluded Election Laws, Mobilization and Turnout, a University of Wisconsin at Madison study published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2014.

Early voting has steadily grown since the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 that allowed people to register to vote outside city or town halls, at motor vehicle substations, unemployment offices, even supermarkets in some states.

Gardner fought that one too, and he won an exemption from it along with five other states.

In exchange, New Hampshire and the rest adopted Election Day registration that lets people show up at the polls on Election Day with an ID, register for the first time and vote.

“Among all of the potential election law reforms, the only consistent one to increase turnout is to permit Election Day registration,” the 2014 study concluded.

Paula Hodges of America Votes said the coalition is now focused on updating New Hampshire’s state election infrastructure to save even more money if New Hampshire ever adopts early voting.

This would include letting people register to vote online, establishing universal polling hours and creating “digital poll books,” so all voter files are electronically accessible.

Manchester City Clerk Matt Normand has been a big advocate and volunteered to have his city pilot the digital effort.

“There are a lot of things we could be doing in New Hampshire to make voting a better experience,” Hodges said.

“They could be done rather quickly; they don’t have to be controversial.”

klandrigan@unionleader.com


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