CONCORD — In 28 states and the District of Columbia, long lines of voters on Election Day are rare, due in large part to state laws that allow unrestricted voting by absentee ballot. When you can get your ballot ahead of time, and mail it in or drop it off at town hall before Election Day, why wait in line?
Democrats in the state Legislature would like to see New Hampshire join that list of states, and they have the backing of the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Secretary of State’s office, citing New Hampshire’s “unique and different traditions,” opposes such a move, as does the New Hampshire City & Town Clerks’ Association, which claims that “no excuse” absentee ballot voting would be a “logistical nightmare.”
House Bill 611, which would extend the option of absentee voting to all registered voters in the state, cleared the House in a 198-163 vote in March. As with most election law bills, the vote was mostly partisan. Only one Republican voted for the bill, and only 11 Democrats voted against it.
Both sides got another chance to make their arguments on Wednesday, as the bill was heard before the Senate Election Committee in the run-up to an anticipated Senate vote.
“New Hampshire in many ways is unique and different, and I think we have to respect those traditions when looking at legislation, and making sure that what we pass here is in New Hampshire’s interests and not part of a one-size-fits-all national approach to elections,” said Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan.
Scanlan cited the New Hampshire Constitution, which requires the Legislature to enable voting by qualified voters who “at the time of the (election), are absent from the city or town of which they are inhabitants, or who by reason of physical disability are unable to vote in person.”
“To expand absentee voting to a situation where anyone can do it for no reason and no excuse? I believe a strong argument could be made that the constitution would have to be changed to permit that to happen,” said Scanlan.
Matter of interpretation
Henry Klementowicz, staff attorney with ACLU-NH, points out that existing state law interprets “absent” to include religious observances, employment obligations, child care or concerns about traveling in a storm, all of which are now listed in election law as acceptable excuses to obtain an absentee ballot.
“I don’t think it’s the Secretary of State’s position that all of those excuses are unconstitutional,” said Klementowicz, even though they are not listed in the state constitution, implying that “absence” means what the state Legislature decides it means.
States in every region of the country allow no-excuse absentee voting, including Vermont and Maine.
“I don’t see a particular commonality among those states, except they are states that are trying to increase access to polling places,” said Klementowicz. “It’s not all western states or states that vote primarily Democratic. There is an emerging consensus that this is the way to go as recent elections have seen large turnouts and long lines at the polls.”
Scanlan warned that unrestricted absentee voting would allow bad actors to game the system.
“We believe it would create an opportunity for those groups who are very sophisticated to start managing the absentee balloting processes,” he said, “by letting voters know they don’t need an excuse, offer help with the application, offer help with the ballot, fill them out, collect them and get them into the mail.”
North Carolina officials in February handed down indictments in a plot to tamper with absentee ballots that forced the state to schedule a new election in its 9th Congressional District. That state, in 2013, changed the way absentee ballots are handled in a variety of ways.
Fears called ‘overblown’
“Fears about security and integrity are overblown,” says Klementowicz. “Voters still have to register to vote and that process doesn’t change. They still have to present the same documentation or affidavit. They have to be on the checklist to request an absentee ballot.”
Town clerks are not equipped to deal with the flood of new absentee ballots the change would generate, according to Milford Town Clerk Joan Dargie.
In addition to the time involved, there’s the cost of postage, availability of space and potentially the need for additional staff. On top of that, the unfolded absentee ballots don’t feed well into the tabulating machines.
“We’d like to see this go to a committee to be studied until we get new voting machines that would process them better, or give the towns time to adopt electronic poll books,” she said.
Allowing clerks to process absentee ballots in advance of Election Day would go a long way to addressing those concerns, said Klementowicz.
Gail Cromwell, formerly on the Board of Selectmen in Temple, cited statistics that suggest the youngest voters and the elderly would benefit most from unrestricted absentee voting.
“We can deal with the security concerns,” she said. “Increased workload? So what? It’s worth it to allow people to vote. Let’s encourage voting and do what a democracy is supposed to be doing.”