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Will N.H. Expand Vote-By-Mail Options In Response To Coronavirus?


In light of COVID-19 concerns, the New Hampshire State House has closed. But, the Secretary of State's office, which is inside the building, remains open. 

David Scanlan is the Deputy Secretary of State for the state of New Hampshire. He spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello earlier today to discuss how their office is conducting business during this time, and if they plan to expand the state's vote-by-mail criteria given the current pandemic. 

Can you explain how your office came to the decision to stay open?

We are a state agency and have been engaged in meetings with the governor's office and other agencies. And, you know, our role is to serve the public. There are certain functions that still need to be taken care of despite the virus that is out there. And we will fulfill that function to the extent that we are able to moving forward. 

What kind of hurdles are preventing your office from moving entirely to remote services? Because there are some things you have to do in person.

First of all, we are encouraging the general public to use online services or to conduct business over the phone, if at all possible and only if necessary to come into the office to conduct other business. There are issues like receiving marriage licenses where the partners in the marriage have to be present to be able to obtain a license. And there are issues related to apostilles, which are documents that are used for usually international purposes, adoptions and things like that that are not offered online that have to be done in person.

I wanted to ask you a few questions about the intersection of COVID-19 and voting, because we've seen a number of election officials in other states take steps to postpone their elections or expand early voting or mail-in voting. Some efforts on the national level as well, some conversation at least. Is the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office open to expanding no-excuses mail-in voting or early voting or other services that would allow people to cast ballots without registering or showing up at the polls in person?

Well, we generally do not favor vote-by-mail or no-excuse absentee voting. Those states that have gone that route have actually shown a decline in their participation in voter turnout. But that's not to say that when we face a situation like we're in right now with a pandemic, that there are not tools that we could put into use. 

Such as?

Well, such as relaxing the definition of what's required to receive absentee ballots as we get closer to election. I think we're going to be having discussions related to the situation as it exists at the time, far enough in advance of an election that if we have to take any special measures that we'll be able to do that.

You would be looking at the reasons for which people could request an absentee ballot and perhaps widening the net, so to speak, so that more people could?

Right. So there are four reasons currently through which a person can request an absentee ballot and they would include obviously being absent, a religious observance, being away at work during the entire time the polls are open. And that definition also includes caregivers that are caring for children or infirm adults. And then the fourth one is disability. And that is probably a definition that could be expanded in a crisis to accommodate a pandemic situation across the country.

And here in New Hampshire, many of the people responsible for running elections are volunteers. Many of those volunteers are senior citizens who are, as we've heard, some of the most at risk for fatal complications due to COVID-19. What steps are your office taking to protect the health and safety of poll workers?

Well, again, that situation is months down the road and it's premature for me to comment on that at the moment. There's a lot of discussions that are still going to have to take place within our office and in consultation with the attorney general.

In general, this situation is forcing many people and public agencies to rely more heavily on technology because health authorities advise people to spend as little time as possible outside of their own homes. Your office has been historically hesitant to adopt technologies like online voter registration. Is this coronavirus pandemic causing you to reassess that reluctance?

Well, I think that we have been looking at technology and the department has implemented technology within different divisions. We have been in discussions with legislators and actually in support of some legislation that is working through the process at the moment.

Related to online voter registration?


So this is something that you would want to consider, not just because of coronavirus, but in general you were thinking about it?

We're on the record as being willing to take a look at it. And those those discussions were under way before the pandemic arrived.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Casey is a Senior News Editor for NHPR. You can contact her with questions or feedback at cmcdermott@nhpr.org.
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