Gardner, MacDonald say voters can register by mail

Secretary of State Bill Gardner, hands on desk, holds court as he announces the date for the first-in-the-nation presidential primary in this November 2019 file photo.

CONCORD — Voters may register to vote by mail for New Hampshire elections if COVID-19 has them fearful of signing the paperwork in person, according to a new legal opinion.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner and Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald have said the risk calls for loosening the requirement in state law that voter registration business has to be done at the city or town clerk’s office.

”Registrants who are unable to register to vote in person because of illness from COVID-19 or because they fear registering in person may expose themselves or others to COVID-19 may use absentee registration,” Gardner and MacDonald wrote.

Those seeking to register to vote by mail must request voter registration forms by mail, email, fax or phone.

The voter still must have someone witness them signing the documents.

The state’s top election official and prosecutor earlier this spring advised that COVID-19 was a “disability” under election law.

Spending advice

The Special Select Committee on Election Security completed its 22-page report to Gardner with recommendations on how to spend a $3.2 million federal grant New Hampshire received under the CARES Act in March.

The committee predicted that, because of COVID-19, absentee voting totals will see “a significant — perhaps massive — increase,” the committee report concluded.

State election officials also are changing the process for independent voters to retain their status after voting in a primary election.

The practice has been that independents, after voting, sit at a table and sign a form to retain their independent status.

Gardner and MacDonald advised local officials that they should instead hand the form to independent voters when they receive the ballot.

All polling stations will be equipped with a separate ballot counting machine to process those forms, officials said.

The select committee listed these priorities for spending the federal grant money: accounting firm’s audit of the grant; personal protective equipment for poll workers; prepaid postage for absentee ballots to publicize the new election procedures; additional polling place costs; a hotline for the Secretary of State’s office to take calls from local officials and voters and leasing of additional ballot-counting machines.

More machines needed

The committee report said the high number of absentee ballots may require leasing additional vote-counting machines.

Current law does not allow local election workers to start counting absentee ballots until two hours after voting has begun on election day.

The committee suggested that two-hour waiting period should be waived for this election.

The report also urges local election officials to consider setting up remote sites where residents could come and safely drop off absentee ballots before election day.

The committee did not recommend the state send an absentee ballot to every voter. The mailing likely would be sent to many voters who had changed their addresses. It also would be unfair to independent voters because the state would not know which primary ballot these voters intended to cast.

Monday, October 19, 2020