By Senator Melanie Levesque, Chair, Election Law and Municipal Affairs and Senator Dan Feltes, State Senate Majority Leader
The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting all aspects of our day-to-day lives, from going to work or to school to running basic errands. We’ve all had to adjust to this new normal. The truth is no one knows what the state or the country is going to look like weeks or months from now or in September and November when voters go to the polls, but we need to take steps now to work through this and out and of this, together.
It’s critical that we start preparing now for what an election looks like in today’s world. Granite Staters have a constitutional right to vote and nothing can take that away. And protecting the right to vote shouldn’t conflict with protecting public health.
But, this next election will not be a simple process with simple solutions. We cannot solve the problem overnight simply by relaxing absentee ballot requirements. We need a comprehensive review of the voting process from voter registration to casting a ballot, and we need it as soon as possible.
We don’t know what the fall will hold, but we know more steps are needed to protect public safety. Many of our poll workers in New Hampshire, who do an incredible job, are in “high-risk” demographic categories for COVID-19. The same voting booths are used throughout the day and in many of our polling places, voters are in close contact waiting in lines to either register or vote. To fully understand the scope of the challenges we face, we need to walk through the entire process from registration to distributing ballots to casting ballots.
Registration: In New Hampshire, voters either register to vote in person at their city/town clerk’s office or at the polls on election day. Today, our town and city clerks’ offices are closed for in-person business, meaning that right now, no one new can register to vote for the 2020 elections, and no one can change their voting address if they’ve moved since the last election. If new voters are unable to register or change their address in advance of election day, then our same-day registration lines will see even greater traffic than normal, which will create additional crowding and contact points.
We need to expand the opportunities for individuals to register without in-person interaction, including online voter registration and mail-in registration options. Both of these are steps that other states have taken to streamline registration, and both can be accomplished safely and securely, but they require planning and coordination. For example, each municipality should not be tasked with developing its own online registration system when we can develop one system for all registrants, but we must plan appropriately to ensure that a statewide online voter registration system communicates effectively with our local clerks, including for those Granite Staters who register in the days before the election.
Receiving Your Ballot: After registering, voters need to be able to efficiently and securely receive their absentee ballot. Right now, New Hampshire is one of only 16 states that requires an excuse to receive an absentee ballot. We should institute no-excuse absentee voting so we can dramatically reduce the number of people going to the polls on election day. However, this change does not happen in a vacuum. If more Granite Staters are requesting absentee ballots, our clerks and moderators are going to potentially be overwhelmed with requests and could struggle to get ballots out in time — as we saw in Wisconsin. New Hampshire should consider joining the 14 other states that allow online absentee ballot requests so we can streamline the process for our cities and towns.
Casting Your Ballot: The final stage in the process is casting your ballot. For most who request an absentee ballot, this will be accomplished by mailing the ballot back to the clerk’s office; however, that cannot be the only option. We should explore secure drop boxes for ballots where individuals can safely drop their ballot off in advance of the election and on election day where Granite Staters could drop their ballots off without leaving their cars. By now we’ve hopefully encouraged everyone who is eligible to vote to do so from home, limiting crowds at the polls, but it is important that we keep polling locations open on election day so New Hampshire can continue to have same-day registration and ensure that no one is denied their constitutionally-protected right to vote.
As with any election, security concerns must be a top priority. In 2016, 25% of ballots across the country were cast by mail and in 2018, 30% of ballots across the country were cast by mail with no evidence of fraud. However, we can go even further and take additional security measures like using tracking barcodes on the ballot envelope — much like we currently do for packages — to ensure we can follow ballots in transit. There’s also evidence that in many primarily vote-by-mail state voters return their ballots to a secure location rather than putting it in the mail, which could include a secure dropbox with a camera to ensure maximum protection.
If we follow these steps, we can have a safe and secure election this fall regardless of what is happening with the COVID-19 public health crisis. Any costs associated with implementing these changes and developing the infrastructure needed to implement these policies can be covered with federal funds from the stimulus package. But, we need to plan now. New Hampshire should create a COVID-19 election task force that can identify all the necessary steps and make recommendations for the needed legislative changes. We need a contingency plan to be ready for whatever COVID-19 looks like in the fall. We need to support our local elected officials with additional resources. We must have a comprehensive approach, we must have total buy-in from all the agencies and officials tasked with running our elections, and we must protect the constitutional right to vote.