CONCORD — Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s never been easier for New Hampshire residents to cast an absentee ballot for the Sept. 8 primary election that’s less than a month away.
State election officials last week urged all voters to become educated about the new rules, and as soon as possible, put in their requests to city or town clerks for absentee ballots if they want them.
This wouldn’t be 2020, however, if the entire process went off without any glitches, finger-pointing or conspiracy theories.
Brad Cook of Manchester, who chaired a select commission that recommended making the voter accommodations, said he believes at least 40% of voters will cast absentee ballots this fall.
A few weeks ago, Gov. Chris Sununu signed the bill (HB 1266) that won bipartisan support and permits any voter to get an absentee ballot if they are at all uncomfortable going to the polls in person due to COVID-19.
Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, authored the reform after having served on the select commission.
Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and Secretary of State Bill Gardner paved the way for taking this step last April when they jointly concluded the risks of voting during COVID-19 constituted a “disability” under state election law.
This change applies only to the primary in September and the general election in November. The new law also allows any voter to make just one request to get access to both of those ballots.
Existing absentee law
New Hampshire traditionally has had limited access to absentee ballots.
They have only been allowed if the voter, by penalty of perjury, states they have a disability or because that person will be physically away from the polls on Election Day due to things such as a work obligation or a religious commitment.
As a result, fewer than 10% of voters have typically cast ballots in this fashion.
“These are different times, and they clearly justify making this change,” Gardner said.
If you want to vote in this fashion, start by making sure you are registered to vote where you live.
If you voted there in any of the past few election cycles you are registered, but a simple call or email to the city or town clerk in your town can quickly confirm it.
Another option is a new search site on Gardner’s office, https://app.sos.nh.gov. This allows anyone to check on a range of voter questions — from their status as a registered voter, their party affiliation, the polling place where they could vote in person and to track the status of their request for an absentee ballot.
Those not registered can also do this by mail or in person at a town or city clerk’s office.
Two sets of mailings
Voters who desire to do this all by mail will need to do two sets of mailings.
The first is the application form that must be filled out and signed requesting the absentee ballot, and the second is to receive, fill out and then mail back that ballot.
Voters can also download the application form from Secretary of State’s website.
If COVID-19 is your reason for the request, make sure you check the application box that reads, “due to concern for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).”
Once you mail the application, town or city officials will send you an absentee ballot that comes with two envelopes. The smaller one will contain the filled-out ballot.
Then you place that ballot into a larger envelope to mail it back to the city or town.
Anyone can do all of this process prior to Election Day in person if they choose by going to the city or town clerk’s office to get their application, filling it out right there and leaving with your absentee ballot in hand.
All votes by absentee must be received by 5 p.m. on Election Day to be counted.
Anyone can send the ballot to the city or town at any time now, but state officials urge getting it in the mail at least five days before the Sept. 8 primary just to be safe.
Confusion over affidavit
Here’s where the latest controversy has come in.
Outside the smaller envelope you will get with your absentee ballot is an affidavit that all voters must sign, under penalty of perjury.
The language of this affidavit, however, does not mention in any way “COVID-19” as a reason for using that ballot.
Instead, it refers to the language in the pre-COVID 19 law and also Part 1, Article 11 of the NH Constitution that states you may only vote by absentee if you’re disabled or because you are out of town.
Gardner said the Legislature did not change the language of the affidavit in the latest bill that permits voting due to COVID.
“If we were to add COVID to the affidavit, the argument could be made that those votes were not constitutionally cast and could be subject to challenge,” Gardner said.
Critics maintain the affidavit will only confuse voters and make some question if they really can vote absentee this way.
Arnie Arnesen of Concord is a liberal talk show host, past Democratic nominee for governor and a former board member of Common Cause.
“A pox on both their houses; this was an oversight by the Legislature not to change the affidavit. Yet at the end of the day it’s the Secretary of State, the longest-serving one in the country, who had a duty to tell them they had to change the affidavit to make things crystal clear,” Arnesen said.
For decades, there’s been friction between Gardner and many Democratic legislative leaders who sought without success to enact laws allowing mail-in voting and online voter registration.
Brian Beihl is deputy director with Open Democracy, a nonpartisan group supporting transparency in elections.
“I am sorry this affidavit issue is something the Secretary of State’s Office never brought up in the run-up to HB 1266. I am not buying it,” Beihl said.
Gardner said state officials are negotiating a workaround.
“We are considering whether to put a notation outside the envelope containing an absentee ballot that makes a reference to COVID,” Gardner said late last week.ACLU-AG are negotiatingThe American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire has gotten involved and is in negotiations with AG MacDonald’s office about this and other issues on how to make voting by absentee seamless and more clear to all voters.
Staff Attorney Henry Klementowicz declined to talk specifics in advance of any agreement, other than to say discussions with the AG’s office have been productive.
“We have seen a number of states hold elections during the pandemic. Some have gone smoothly and many have not. It remains to be seen how New Hampshire elections are going to go,” Klementowicz said.
The ACLU lawyer urged Gardner and local election officials to host virtual sessions to better inform the public about absentee voting.
Both major political parties have created their own absentee ballot education programs.
Beih said election officials in some towns recently sent out to voters absentee ballots that contained no instructions about voting due to COVID.
“One of our activists said it looks like amateur hour,” Beihl said.
He credited Gardner’s office with posting updated instructions on the website.
For his part, Governor Sununu, an opponent of mail-in voting, remains a steadfast supporter of how Gardner has run things.
“I don’t care how Nevada or Florida runs its elections, “Sununu said. “I care how New Hampshire does, and it’s open, transparent and the best system in the entire country.”