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Weekly N.H. News Roundup: April 17, 2020

Gov. Chris Sununu has ordered schools remain closed for the rest of the school year, and there's a court challenge to determine who has authority over distributing federal COVID-19 relief funds in New Hampshire. We'll get the latest on those stories, plus we'll dig into the impact the coronavirus is having on voting, both here in the state and nationally. We'll also hear from the town administrator of Bristol, which was the focus of a recent New York Times article.

Air date: Friday, April 17, 2020 


  • Sarah Gibson - NHPR education reporter
  • Ethan DeWitt - Concord Monitor statehouse reporter
  • Casey McDermott - Investigative reporter for NHPR
  • Pam Fessler - NPR correspondent, covering voting issues
  • Nik Coates - Bristol town administrator


 Peter Biello  0:01  

From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Peter Biello. And this is the Weekly New Hampshire News Roundup on The Exchange.

All public and private schools in New Hampshire will stay closed through the remainder of the school year. Democratic lawmakers sue Governor Chris Sununu in an attempt to gain oversight over billions of dollars in COVID-19 aid to the state. And in an age of physical distancing, the Secretary of State allows for greater access to absentee ballots.  We're going to start with schools.. And joining us for this part of the program NHPR education reporter Sarah Gibson. Thank you very much, Sarah, for joining us by Skype. We really appreciate it.

So the governor announced yesterday that schools are going to be closed for the rest of the school year, but remote learning is expected to continue. Was this much of a surprise, Sarah?

Sarah Gibson  1:18  

Not exactly. Even earlier this week on NHPR Governor Sununu indicated that there would likely be a longer term closure. And frankly, the Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut has been saying for weeks now to districts, you know, get ready for this to continue past May. So it did not come as a huge surprise, though. It was a disappointment for a bunch of parents and some teachers to hear.

Peter Biello  1:45  

Okay, and there is some concern about testing and grading during this remote learning period. Governor Sununu said there might need to be some flexibility on grading and a pass/fail system might be appropriate in some areas. Why?

Sarah Gibson  2:00  

Well, and to be clear, that's that's up to the districts ultimately to decide. But the notion behind this is that there is an incredible amount of pressure and stress for students and their families right now. And so if you can move away from you know, wondering whether or not you're going to get a C, a D, or an F, if you're struggling to kind of make sense of your assignments, that might just make the remote learning process ultimately more successful and easier for some students. And there's also a concern that this could really penalize students who maybe don't have great internet access, or are still sharing some computers with their siblings or don't have a ton of guidance from their parents to make sure that they're staying on task. Those kids are the most likely it's believed to, you know, be sliding down from maybe their typical sea level to an app. So the idea that you could maybe just simplify the grading process is pretty attractive to some districts and I will say that, that makes And Chester has already decided to rather than do a pass fail to just have incompletes rather than fail because the idea there is, you know, students might not be able to achieve their competencies this year, they might not be able to get that kind of core subject area mastered. But we want to give them a chance in the summer and next fall to basically catch up and that's what an incomplete would suggest rather than a fail. But some districts are deciding that they don't want to move to that system. And one of the reasons is GPAs are valuable for athletes as well as students who are applying for scholarships and those who are looking towards college. So if you typically get an A and or B, and you want to you know apply to a competitive college next year, you probably don't want your transcript to be all pass/fail suddenly. So there certainly is, there's room for districts to decide what works best given the needs and concerns of families in that specific district.

Peter Biello  4:04  

One of the things you just mentioned, Sarah had to do with resources that some students may have at home that other students may not. And that may speak to the economic disparity between students and whether or not wealthier kids are going to do better under the system than poor kids. Is that a concern among education leaders in the state?

Sarah Gibson  4:23  

Yeah, it's a huge concern. I mean, there's already an equity issue here in the state in terms of just you know, how many resources individual districts have but also a real variation, even in a specific school or in a district, what kids have, you know, what kinds of resources kids have at home. And so, there has been a real push to ensure that you know, most kids have internet access that most kids have tablets that kids are getting, you know, wellness checks and other kinds of out of contact with their teachers and with their administrators, but at the end of the day, you know, administrators and teachers have known. Some kids come from more difficult and less resourced backgrounds. And they're trying to keep tabs on those kids while acknowledging that life at home is a lot harder for some of those. I mean, I just talked to a teacher yesterday who said, you know, the reality is that kids, some of her kids, she works with in Manchester, they're raising three of their siblings because daycares have been shut down. And mom still has to go work at Market Basket. So, you know, imagine being a 16 year old with limited internet trying to keep up and you are essentially serving as the parent for two other kids who are also supposed to be remote learning. So that's a trend that we see in some of these families and districts are certainly aware of that. But there's a concern that this remote learning will be widening inequities that already existed in districts.

Peter Biello  5:53  

We're spending a few minutes talking about the state of education right now during the Coronavirus pandemic.. Sarah, what is the oversight? Like for the students who suddenly have to be homeschooled like this? How is the state, or how are districts checking up to make sure that all these kids are still engaging with their lessons, whatever these lessons may be?

Sarah Gibson  6:27  

Yeah, well, each school has a different system. And most students are in some capacity going online. And you can pretty well take attendance online if a student is kind of checking in at, say, the 11am class meeting or if they're checking into Google Classroom to do their assignments, that you know, that can count as attendance. So that's certainly happening for force for some districts. However, there are there are some grades, particularly younger ones, where it's largely you know, old fashioned, non-internet non-screentime assignments and so that is a little bit confusing how to measure progress and how to measure attendance even if a student is not necessarily logging in every morning to let teachers know that they're present and working on their schoolwork. So there's still some confusion about that. And it really is up to schools to track kids and they have all come up with different systems for providing contact with the families and the students weekly. So some you know, parents have probably been hearing in the last couple of weeks, you should expect to get X amount of time from the science teacher every single week or we are expecting you know, 45 minutes of your kid learning new material for their math class every single day. And you know, there'll be one one day when they are given some flex time to be in touch one on one with that teacher should there be questions. So you know, different systems depending on the district because we are a state of local Control. But the DMV is still trying to kind of figure out a mechanism to understand how this is working for students. They've mentioned some kinds of assessments happening this spring, or next fall to kind of get a sense of where students have fallen behind how districts are doing. But the specifics of that are still unknown. Since, as we've reported already, at the typical statewide assessments that we would have seen next month, those have been canceled.

Peter Biello  8:28  

And regarding student progress, I mean, there is concerned that kids will fall behind in their studies because of this forced remote learning. So what are school districts doing, if anything, to prevent that slide?

Sarah Gibson  8:43  

They're working really, really hard. I mean, I think you know, if you talk to a teacher, most people I've interviewed have said, You know, I typically log 10 hour days, these days, it's more like 13 like so there is an incredible output of energy. But despite that, there is still sense that wow, we are going to definitely see or need to do some remedial work either in the summer or next fall with a bunch of our students. So so that that's gonna, that's gonna look different depending on the district again, but we have heard from Governor Sununu, you know this, a hope that summertime can be a time when, you know, hundreds of kids each each year in different districts, we're getting kind of remedial support throughout the summer in order to ensure that they were pretty on track next fall. So that's a kind of a system that has existed for school districts for a while, but it would maybe need to be kind of ramped up this summer. But there's a major problem with that, Peter, which is that a lot of districts are not convinced that they will be able to be open this summer. And so if you have a structure to provide remedial support services to students who are falling behind, and compensatory education to students had special needs that were not met. If you're still doing that remotely in the summer. That is leaving a lot of room for some kids to fall behind. So there is, at least among some educators I've spoken to, a sense that we're going to have to do a lot of this kind of catch up work next fall, not this summer. And that's still to be determined by districts.

Peter Biello  10:14  

And at the press conference yesterday, Governor Sununu said schools can figure out when their own end of the school year will be. So does that give them leeway to say, extend the regular school year a little bit longer, perhaps to prevent the slide?

Sarah Gibson  10:27  

Well, I haven't heard of anyone trying to extend the school year. You know, if that is happening, let me know. I've heard more that that could mean that rather than count school days, you're counting school hours. So there are minimum requirements that districts have that are different than the amount of school days like until June 15, everyone needs to be at school. And so if you if you scale back to the minimum hours, it could be that you are actually seeing students done technically done with a semester earlier than mid June. But I think there's also this, the sense that you know, again, it is up to districts that have been tracking students progress more than the DOE has to figure out what does make sense for them. And it could, it could mean that we have some districts that are closing a couple weeks early. And in fact, some districts canceled their April break, in part to make sure that they could just get out a week early. But I think as we move further and further in this process, Peter, there is a sense that June is not going to look like February did in terms of people's  freedom of movement, and mobility and everything going back to normal. So we don't really know whether or not if school were to end early, if kids would immediately be able to go on a typical vacation, nor if kids who needed extra support could go into the school building and get that over the course of the summer.

Peter Biello  11:48  

Okay, one more question for you, Sarah Gibson. So what are the main issues that are raising concerns for the Department of Education in districts that you'll be keeping an eye on in the coming weeks and months?

Sarah Gibson  11:58  

Yeah. So the DOE commissioner FranEdelblut has raised a couple of issues that are of concern. One is private providers who typically provided a lot of special ed services to students who had IEPs,  individualized education plans. There are thousands of those in most districts, students who are legally, they have kind of a legal mandate to get certain services to help them stay, stay on, basically get access to education as their peers would. And so there are a couple of costs associated with that and also a couple of different kinds of providers who help kids in that process. And private providers have really been stepping up in some cases and continuing to provide those services remotely, but there is concern that some of them are losing a ton of money right now. And what is that going to look like for them come June, and then there's a concern that a bunch of students who had special needs that were typically met in the school building that can't be met remotely, that they're going to need some kind of compensatory Ed or makeup. And we don't really know what that's going to look like nor do we know how much it's going to cost, but the assumption is there will be a cost there. And the question is, to what extent will federal aid that will be coming in in the coming weeks, that about $35 million specifically for K through 12? To what extent will that be divvied up for various costs associated with the Coronavirus pandemic. So there is a thought that a bunch of it will go towards special needs kids but there's so many other costs, Peter, that are anticipated, that are the result of school closures and remote learning.

Peter Biello  13:43  

Well, we'll have to check in with you again as you follow that enormous amount of moneySarah. Sorry, Gibson, thank you very much for speaking with us.. That's NHPR education reporter Sarah Gibson. And we turn now to Ethan DeWitt of the Concord Monitor. He's been covering the state response to the pandemic. He's with us by Skype. Thank you very much for joining us. Thanks for having me. And Ethan, let's talk about one piece of the economic picture right now the loans that businesses can apply for to stay afloat as consumer spending drops off. You profiled Gibson's bookstore in Concord in the Concord Monitor. So how's Gibson's getting by?

Ethan Dewitt  14:37  

Sure, so, obviously, since the shutdown order last week, that officially shut down under it stay at home order. Businesses, many businesses have lost foot traffic, they haven't closed entirely. A lot of them have switched to curbside pickup and delivery. And so you have a lot of mainstream businesses that are that are kind of waking up to a new world and trying to make this new Model work. And for a bookstore like Gibson's that means deliver either they've done 99 cent delivery, but it is for most businesses that I've talked to it's it's not, you know, it's it's it's going better than they thought. And they're working out some kinks, but it certainly isn't the same level of business that they were doing before. There's a lot of things that you miss by not having a physical store, you know, people like to browse, they may impulse buy, they may make a decision that they wouldn't have made. When they go online and they buy orders. It's more targeted. So in Concord downtown businesses are losing revenue, and that is where these federal loans are coming in, in a big way. The Small Business Administration, which is a federal agency, has created this paycheck Protection Program, and it was funded at $349 billion dollars for the entire country. And essentially, what it does is it allows businesses any small business And it really kind of includes a lot of businesses and allows them to apply to get a loan upfront very fast, usually about a one week turnaround, which is very fast for a loan. And the condition of that loan is if they take that loan, and they spend at least 75% of it on their payroll. And the idea is they would keep paying their employees even if they are going home, then the loan will be forgiven down the line. And so this is a this is a really big incentive for pretty much any business right now. Because everybody is facing this tough economic reality. So

Peter Biello  16:36  

And Ethan, how's it how's it working? Are people who apply for this? Are businesses that apply for this loan,  are they getting the money in time and keeping up the routine of paying their employees on the regular schedule?

Ethan Dewitt  16:47  

Yes, a lot of them are. So I should say it. It varies by industry. So obviously the restaurant industry, the hospitality industry, they are still struggling a lot because a lot of them have had to make layout Way before this program got offline, this program kicked off on April 3, as we know, restaurants and hotels and other businesses were struggling long before that. So for some of them, it's a little bit maybe too little too late. But for other businesses, like Gibson's like other stores that I've talked to, it has been a help. And one reason it has helped it has is that it works through local banks. So actually, the money is being loaned out by the local bank, which if you're a main street business, you will likely have a relationship with your local bank. And so you go to that bank and the federal government's role is that they are securing these loans that the banks can freely make the loans and, and the, the program works by kind of moving aside a lot of red tape that you would normally need to go through in order to get a loan. And so you're getting these very fast turnovers. I talked to the Merrimack County Savings Bank, the average loan amount to businesses in the Concord area has been about about $100,000 In $250,000 per business, that's a huge boost for these businesses. And it means that they can change kind of their whole strategy with how to deal with this crisis. Because when they're now putting 75% of that into payroll, so they're able to make decisions that they're able to use the money that that's coming in, through their existing revenue to go towards, you know, lease payments and debt payoffs and that kind of thing, rather than worrying about so much payroll, so it has turned around quickly, it has been a help, but unfortunately, this week, it has also run out to the entire $349 billion pot has been exhausted. 

Peter Biello  18:38  

Is that going to be replaced soon? Or is that dependent on federal aid?

Ethan Dewitt  18:44  

Yes, that would depend on Congress authorizing more money to go in there. I think it's seen as an urgent problem on both sides. The President has talked about it both parties have talked about it. There has been some partisan squabbling over kind of what will go into that act. Ultimately That's part of what's holding it up. But it literally meant a literal freeze the moment that the money ran out, I was talking to the bankers in Concord yesterday. And, you know, they're saying that they simply can't send out any more loans. So anybody who didn't apply early on as a business now has to wait and every day is kind of a could make a crucial difference for business.

Peter Biello  19:22  

Ethan, what about the traditional unemployment program where someone just just loses their job and their employer is not taking a loan to pay them, but the state is making payments from the unemployment insurance fund? Is that program working as intended?

Ethan Dewitt  19:35  

Yeah, so there have been some delays with that. So there's two ways to get aid if you're unemployed. There's federal unemployment assistance that's kind of come about in emergency fashion through this crisis. And then there's state unemployment aid. So the federal you may have heard about the $600 a week minimum that everybody is meant to get. The problem is that the New Hampshire Department of Employment Security, they're being swamped. Right now one thing that they've had to do is update all their systems because the new unemployment assistant actually let a lot more people qualify for unemployment than could normally qualify under normal circumstances. So they've had to update their IT systems. And that's caused a little bit of a delay. So those $600 checks should have been going out as of Wednesday. But that has meant that for weeks people have been applying and hoping to get that expanded criteria and and not been able to see advice from the department is if you are unemployed, keep applying, keep applying every week, even if you get initially rejected, appeal that rejection and keep applying because some of these systems are still coming online. Note, too, with businesses, there's another program that the state has, which is called the work share program. And the idea is it's a way for businesses to also keep their employees by letting the businesses reduce the salaries of the employees and then the New Hampshire department will kind of make hold or make almost hold those those salaries by using unemployment funds. So this is another incentive for businesses not to go right to layoffs, which will overload the system, but to try to keep as many employees on as they can and use that as a supplement while they wait for the federal loans.

Peter Biello  21:22  

Ethan, if you'll hang on with us for just a second want to take a call from Jim in Plymouth? Jim, thanks for calling What's on your mind?

Caller  21:30  

Well, I just wanted to talk about what you were talking about earlier. And that is, you know, the effect of this extended remote learning period. I'm a teacher, and I teach him as a middle school. And we you know, we've been, we've been sort of building the plane as we are flying it only because we have no other choice. But yesterday, I was in a Google meet with one of my classes and we were talking about the kill Mockingbird, which is what we're learning now. And the news came through That school was going to be canceled for the rest of the year as far as going actually going to the physical building. Now one of my students just broke down in tears. I heard many times yesterday from students that oh my god, I miss school, I miss school. This is having a major effect on students. Some kids are almost giving up. Other kids aren't you know, they're trying to do the best they can. But this is this was like a gut punch to them when they found this out yesterday.

Peter Biello  22:27  

Yeah. So what do you do as a teacher to sort of lift the spirits of kids who have such an emotional reaction?

Caller  22:35  

Try to make it as normal and I'm saying normal in air quotes as normal as possible. Try to maintain a routine that that they understand and that they can rely on. Because I mean, students. They appreciate a routine in the classroom. So they know I'm going to come in on this day and this is what's going to happen. But the same kind of thing is what we're trying to do now. With No remote learning Google meets, things like that. Limited assignments. So any way we can just create a norm that is manageable.

Peter Biello  23:14  

Well, Jim, thank you very much for calling and sharing your perspective really appreciate that. We love hearing from listeners who are getting by one way or another through this COVID-19 pandemic, give us a call one 808 nine to 6477. Ethan DeWitt of the Concord Monitor, we want to turn back to the state's response and what's happening on the state level with respect to assisting people who need help. One of those that one of the ways of course the state's been trying to help people is to spend federal money. And there's a big dispute about federal money. Right now Democratic lawmakers filed suit against governor Sununu saying that a legislative committee has the constitutional authority to give its stamp of approval before any emergency COVID-19 relief funds are spent. The governor disagrees saying his emergency emergency powers grant him the authority To run spending decisions through a committee he created. This is scheduled to play out in court early next week. Ethan, you were at the press conference yesterday. What's the governor saying about this lawsuit?

Ethan DeWitt  24:10  

Well, essentially, he's saying that these are different times. I think everyone would agree with that piece of it. He's saying that with his executive order, that gives him special powers that allow that necessitate him to spend this money quickly. And kind of go around the regular process just to give a background to toggle what the regular process is. The joint fiscal committee is one of the most powerful panels in the state. It's a 13 member committee. It's controlled by whoever controls legislators right now, that's Democrats. There's nine democrats and four Republicans. And essentially it's a clearing house. in normal times it's a clearinghouse for any spending that an agency or department in the state wants any grant they might get from the federal government or any transfer within their department. Because when you transfer money from one program, you're essentially cutting from one program to another. So the idea is that you have legislative oversight there. And so this committee, for the most part, says yes to almost all requests that it gets. And a lot of what it does is rudimentary because every every spending request over $100,000 must go through them. But there have been times in the last two years, especially when democrats took over the legislature where this committee has clashed with some of the governor's departments over certain spending. And that's sort of the backdrop here. So now we're in a crisis, where we are getting an unprecedented amount of stimulus money. late March last year, Congress approved the Kerris act that was a $2 trillion spending package and included for New Hampshire $1.25 billion, which is the most of the money from the federal government New Hampshire has ever received to put into perspective in the 2000s recession. During that stimulus package, it was about $900 million. So it's it's much bigger. And that's sort of where this I would say constitutional clash starts. 

Peter Biello  26:14  

And and and the courts will start to weigh in on that I believe on Monday. Governor not expressing too much concern about this battle right now as His focus is might might be elsewhere.

Ethan Dewitt  26:25  

Yeah, so the governor argues that he has created this office, the the governor's office for emergency relief and recovery. It's similar to what governor john Lynch created back in 2009. And he says his advisory legislative committee will do as good a job as fiscal and he's concerned about the money moving quickly and not being encumbered by a legislative committee. So for him, he's making the argument that it's about expediency that this money is not the same as the stimulus money in 2009 because a lot of it is going to, you know, immediate money That immediate, immediate medical need, but democrats are saying that they are just as flexible as the governor, they can move just as quickly as the governor. And if the governor were to loop them in as the usual process through the fiscal committee, they would be able to get this money out quickly. And now they're saying in court that by not letting them be part of that process, that the governor is violating both state statute and the state constitution by essentially kind of routing an entire branch of government. So we're going to see these big questions determine, but as for the governor, he seems to be kind of, you know, avoiding talking about it too much at press conferences, focusing on on, you know, other aspects of the state's response and letting the the court battle play out.

Peter Biello  27:45  

Even we've got to let you go. But I do appreciate you spending some time with us today to help share what you've been reporting on Ethan do it at the Concord monitor. Thanks for being with us.

We're talking today about the news of the week. Most of it related to COVID-19 And coming up we're going to talk about voting during the pandemic. There'll be a few months before we cast ballots and statewide elections. NHPR’s Casey McDermott and NPR’s Pam Fessler will join us to answer your questions. This is the Weekly New Hampshire News Roundup on The Exchange. I'm Peter Biello. We'll be right back.

Right now we're taking a look at some of the big issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic in New Hampshire. And we're going to turn our attention now to the topic of voting. We're joined now by NHPR’s Casey McDermott, who's with us by Skype. And NPR’s Pam Fessler. on the phone with us. Thank you very much for joining us, both of you. Thanks for having us. We'll turn to you first, Casey, because the the Secretary of State's office recently announced it would expand absentee ballot access to New Hampshire voters. So let's break it down a little bit. What conditions previously entitled voters to an absentee ballot and what are the requirements now?

Casey McDermott  29:32  

Sure. So it's important to note that there are there are other states that allow someone to request an absentee ballot under you know, non Coronavirus circumstances without providing some kind of state approved excuse or attesting that they meet certain criteria that the state has deemed acceptable as an excuse for filing an absentee ballot. So, here in New Hampshire, however, we have long Asked voters to specify that they meet certain kinds of criteria. So that can include someone who has a work obligation or a caregiving obligation that prevents them from being physically present at the polling place on election day. That also includes people who plan to be out of town on election day for whatever reason. It includes other people who have religious observances. There's a handful of circumstances that the state has historically classified as acceptable. Another one has been if someone has an illness or a disability or another medical condition that would make it challenging for them to to be present at the polls. So what the state has done is they have decided in in the reading of the Attorney General and in the reading of the Secretary of State's office that the ongoing public health emergency around COVID-19 Teen would would qualify, essentially any eligible voter in New Hampshire - and eligible is really the key word there because you still have to be legally, you know, allowed to vote in New Hampshire - can request an absentee ballot and can vote absentee in this year's elections.

Peter Biello  31:20  

Okay, so how did the Secretary of State's office come to this decision?

Casey McDermott  31:24  

So they basically have have kind of expanded their definition of the disability criteria that they have have long used for absentee voting purposes. So they've they've said that, you know, they are interpreting the term disability broadly with respect to absentee voting. So that means in their view, you know, because public health authorities are advising people to practice social distancing to avoid gathering in groups, which often happens at polling places that can be interpreted as, you know the kind of medical advice that would encourage someone to avoid going to a polling place on election day. So that's kind of the the loose explanation of how the state is interpreting this right now. One of the big questions that remained However, after the state issued this formal guidance about absentee voting about a week ago was what this means for registration because typically in New Hampshire in many cases, people do have to physically present themselves at a town or city hall in order to register to vote in New Hampshire or even to to request an absentee ballot. However, New Hampshire does have a provision of its voter registration rules that allows someone who has a disability to register via a special absentee voter registration process and I checked with the state recently on this We heard back yesterday actually. And they confirmed that if, for example, a voter were to claim disability to ensure that they they can vote absentee in this year's elections, they can also claim disability, because of COVID, even if they're not personally ill with COVID, even if they're just concerned about, you know, their safety or their health or the health of those around them, they can also register via that absentee voter registration process. And the state says that more guidance is going to be forthcoming on that.

Peter Biello 33:34  

Let me turn to Pam Fessler. On that, Pam, you've been looking at a broader national picture when it comes to voting by mail absentee voting is what Casey is describing, familiar to you. Are you hearing that kind of thing coming from other states as well?

Pam Fessler  33:49  

Yeah, I mean, it's all across the country and they basically every single state is now trying to grapple with how they are going to revise their band. Voting or absentee voting rules to accommodate the pandemic. I mean it there's a recognition that this is what voters want that that that many of them do not want to show up at the polls in person or are unable to. And and, and absentee voting and failing voting is really their only recourse. So what we're seeing this cross, you know, things changes across the board, but it's really the type of chain to where the issues are. As Casey noted, some states about two thirds of the states already have no excuse absentee voting so you can anybody can vote absentee. They don't need to have an excuse. In the states that do require an excuse just like New Hampshire, dairy are about half of them have already adjusted the excuse to accommodate consumers about Coronavirus. But the others have not and in some cases such as Texas, that's the subject of legal action. The Democrats are suing to try Get Texas to change its rules to liberalize its role so more people can vote absentee. The other thing that you're seeing is states making other changes in their rules. And a lot of places you just have to you have to request an absentee ballot, you have to apply for an absentee ballot. Some states now are actually mailing out those applications to every single voter in the state to kind of take it to ease the process. Others like my state, Maryland, is going to be mailing out an actual absentee ballot to every single voter in the state. So you don't even have to apply for it. You're going to get the ballot in the mail. And then you can choose whether or not to send it back. states are also deciding whether or not to pay postage or not. There will to some demands, especially by Democrats, that other rules are ease some states require That you have signature witnesses, witnesses and signature matching requirements on your absentee ballots. Democrats are going to court a couple of states to try and get those eased as well because they're trying to get rid of any kind of barriers to people using mail and voting.

Peter Biello  36:22  

I'll get more into the politics of this with you in just a moment if that's okay, but I do want to take a call from Paul while he's on the line. Paul from Hudson, thanks very much for calling. you're on the air.

Caller  36:31  

Oh, thank you. It's nice to know that the state has expanded the absentee ballot reasons so that people who are afraid to come to the polls would would be able to file an absentee ballot but they haven't really changed anything in terms of how towns have to handle it. The last presidential election town of Hudson had over 1300 absentee ballots 12 or 1300. If that's going to go up to four or five 6000 How are we supposed to handle that? On election day along with the walk ins and the new registrations, I may have trouble with employees trying to, you know, one not wanting to come in and be exposed to all that since a lot of my employees are elderly, as I include myself in that group, and may not want to be able to come in and work with all the exposure, they really have to look at the procedure and how we're going to handle that.

Peter Biello  37:29  

So Paul, you would need maybe, among other things, more hands on deck to help you process all these absentee ballots.

Caller  37:36  

Right. And I may have trouble getting that because it took us eight hours, just to handle the 1200 that we had last presidential election and that was a bunch of people working on it.

Peter Biello  37:47  

Eight hours, you don't want to try to open

Caller  37:48  

up everything on the day of the election if they let us. There's got to be some changes in procedures. Some of it may require a lot change because some of that stuff is in the law, but This is going to be we're not going to have the results. And the same day it just isn't going to happen.

Peter Biello  38:05  

Well, Paul, thanks very much for giving us a call and sharing your thoughts. Really appreciate it. Pam fesler wanted to ask you about the politics of this because there's there's some perception at least that more mail in voting would favor Democrats. The President has weighed in on mail and voting. He says he doesn't like it. Have you found that greater emphasis on mail and voting would benefit Democrats?


Pam Fessler  38:30  

No, not at all. Most of the research shows that states that have had predominantly male in elections, it does not seem to favor one party over the other. In fact, if anything it might tend to favor of older at least in the past, has voted tended to favor a little bit older and wider voters who are more inclined or who have been more inclined to use absentee balloting. But but most experts have looked at this way that there's really no evidence is going to help one party over the other. And I think that that's why we're seeing despite what President Trump's objections, we're really seeing the the what what battles there are in the States. It's more about these other specifics that I was talking about whether or not people actually get the ballots sent to them, what the deadlines are whether postage is paid. And I think there there's some concern between among the parties that it might favor one over the other, but even that, I'm not sure. I'm kidding. So just address one thing that your your caller. Certainly, Paul brought up. And that actually is a concern everywhere, you know, that that this there's a lot of logistical challenges with mail and voting and counting the votes, just having enough paper is processing them. And this will be a challenge. And I anticipate that lots of local election offices around the country are going to find themselves overwhelmed in that. We are going to be seeing results a lot later than we're used to.


Peter Biello: [00:38:10.45] Pam Fessler wanted to ask you about the politics of this, because there's some concern, perception at least, that more mail in voting would favor Democrats. The president has weighed in on mail and voting. He says he doesn't like it. Have you found that greater emphasis on mail in voting would benefit Democrats?

Pam Fessler: [00:38:30.63] No, not at all. Most of the research shows that states that have had a predominantly mail-in elections. It does not seem to favor one party over the other. In fact, if anything, it might tend to favor older, at least in the past, has tended to save a little bit older and whiter voters who are more inclined or who have been more inclined to use absentee balloting. But but most experts have looked at this, say that there's really no evidence that's going to help one party or the other. And I think that that's why we're seeing, despite what President Trump's objections, we're really seeing the what battles there are in the states. It's more about these other specifics that I was talking about, whether or not people actually get the ballots sent to them. What the deadlines are, whether post is paid. And I think there there's some concern between among the parties that it might favor one over the other. But even that, I'm not sure.


Pam Fessler: [00:39:35.31] Can I also just address one thing that your caller certainly Paul brought up, and that actually is a concern everywhere. You know, that there's a lot of logistical challenges with mail and voting and counting the votes. Just having enough paper is processing them. And this will be a challenge. And I anticipate that lots of local election offices around the country are going to find themselves overwhelmed in that we are going to be seeing results a lot later than we're used to.


Peter Biello: [00:40:05.88] And let me put that to Casey as well. Casey, regarding Paul's comment about not having enough help on Election Day and not having the results on Election Day, if there aren't enough workers to count the absentee ballots. To what extent is the state aware of this problem and working on a solution to it?


Casey McDermott: [00:40:22.95] Well, I you know, I can say, based on what I've heard from other local election officials, that they are very much aware in all corners of the state about the crunch that, you know, their poll workers are under even under a kind of, you know, quote unquote, normal election circumstances. I've reached out repeatedly to the secretary of state's office for more clarity on how they're they're planning to address election administration in the era of COVID. We've not gotten a lot of details thus far. One big question that I have is how New Hampshire might plan to spend this chunk of money that it was awarded through one of the recent COVID relief bills that passed at the federal level. This is disbursing money to all states around the country. New Hampshire is in line to receive about 3.2 million from the federal government and potentially a, you know, would have to put forward a state match in addition to that.


Casey McDermott: [00:41:21.0] And that money is meant to help states offset costs around supplies or other elements that would be needed to ensure that they can proceed with an election safely and smoothly despite COVID. And I actually reached out to some local poll workers across the state in the last week or so to ask them, you know, how how would you like to see the state spend that money? And I got all kinds of different responses, everything from, you know, it would be nice to have some gloves and face masks.


Casey McDermott: [00:41:55.02] It would also be nice to get some more funding to cover the additional kind of mailing and personnel costs. It's a challenge to recruit poll workers even when we're not dealing with a global pandemic. So I think that's also on the minds of a lot of local election officials across New Hampshire. So we will continue asking the state for more clarity on what they plan to do to address this issue. And I imagine that, you know, I it sounds like a lot of poll workers are also asking the state as well.


Peter Biello: [00:42:25.53] Pam Fessler, with the understanding that the elections are run at the state level, have lawmakers in Congress planned any legislation that would make voting easier for the states?


Pam Fessler: [00:42:36.59] Well, there are a number of Democrats in Congress who have been pushing for an expansion. Well, not only an increase in the amount of money that's provided by Congress to help states get through this crisis. As Casey mentioned, there was some money was already approved, it was 400 million. But what some lawmakers would like to see is a billion dollars provided to the states.


Pam Fessler: [00:43:03.47] There's some estimates that that 400 million will barely cover the postage cost for mail-in ballots in the states. And then also, they would like to see this mostly Democratic proposal to an expansion of some of the rules that would allow for early voting days that would make some of these other changes I talked about as far as sending ballots out to all of the voters and get rid of some of the witness signature requirements as well as some of the other changes. Now, Republicans say that they are opposed to having any kind of federal mandates or requirements on how states run elections. So they are opposed to putting any kind of restrictions on the funding. I also don't think it's very likely that more money is going to be approved this year quite frankly, after the 400 million approved.


Peter Biello: [00:44:04.81] Casey McDermott, we got this e-mail from Amanda about a voting question. She says, The secretary of state said that voters can check off the disability box on the absentee ballot request form. As I recall, the request, form and ballot are submitted, quote, under penalty of perjury. What impact will there be on voter turnout if people can only vote under penalty of perjury? That's her first question. Second question from Amanda is also, wouldn't it be better if the legislature passed no excuse, absentee voting through the normal legislative process and the governor signed that bill instead of vetoing it as he did in the past? Those are the questions from Amanda. Casey, what do you think?


Casey McDermott: [00:44:40.36] Sure. So just for disclosure. It appears that that question came from state Rep. Amanda Bouldin of Manchester. So the issue of absentee voting and whether or not New Hampshire should move to no excuse, absentee voting has been a subject that the legislature has taken up time and again. As Representative Bouldin mentioned, the legislature under a Democratic majority actually passed that bill last session. It was vetoed by Governor Chris Sununu who has since expressed support for this plan to expand absentee voting amid the public health emergency with Coronavirus. So, you know, that has, you know, caused some consternation among Democrats who said, look, we had an opportunity to get moving on this earlier and we didn't take it. So I think that's, you know, a frustration that I'm I'm hearing from some local Democratic lawmakers. On the issue of the turnout question. I do think that is a genuine concern for people. Again, any, you know, kind of additional steps, additional paperwork that people may have to have to proceed with in order to vote always raises questions about how is that going to impact someone's ability to actually cast a ballot. I think in this case, the state has made very clear, at least initially, that that question of testing under penalty of perjury should not be an issue. And they said very clearly in the guidance that they issued last week that, you know, an election official should never deny someone's absentee ballot because they suspect that they are not, that they do not genuinely need to cast it for the reason that they've indicated on that ballot. So it sounds like they're trying to get ahead of these concerns about someone, you know, someone's kind of excuse being believed when they apply for an absentee ballot. But we will certainly continue to follow efforts to make sure that the public is educated about how to how to still cast a ballot if they're eligible later this year.


Peter Biello: [00:46:51.79] That's NHPR's. Casey McDermott joining us by Skype. Casey, thank you very much for speaking with us. Really appreciate it. Thanks for having me. Thanks also to you. Pam Fessler, we really appreciate your time today.


Casey McDermott: [00:47:01.42] Thank you. Nice to be here.


Peter Biello: [00:47:02.69] That's NPR's Pam Fessler. Listeners we're talking about the week's news with a special focus on the Coronavirus pandemic.And coming up, how the virus is impacting small town America. We'll speak with the town administrator of the town of Bristol, New Hampshire. Bristol was recently profiled in The New York Times as an example of the kind of devastation the Coronavirus can bring to small towns. Are you living in or do you work in Bristol or do you live in another small town in New Hampshire? If so, what's your small town story?  This is the Weekly New Hampshire News Roundup on The Exchange on NHPR. I'm Peter Biello. We'll be right back.


Peter Biello: [00:48:05.38] This is The Exchange on NHPR. I'm Peter Biello. Right now, we're going to talk a little bit about small towns in New Hampshire, specifically the small town of Bristol, New Hampshire, which was thrust into the national spotlight this week when it became the focus of a New York Times article about Coronavirus threatening the future of the community. The article documented what it described as the devastating impact the Coronavirus has had on the town's economy. Joining us now by phone to talk about how the community is faring is Nik Coates. He's town administrator for Bristol. Nik, thank you very much for being with us. Really appreciate it.


Nik Coates: [00:48:53.45] Peter, thank you very much for having me. I appreciate your time.


Peter Biello: [00:48:56.03] And as will become clear as our chat progresses, it's been a tough time for you. How you holding up?


Nik Coates: [00:49:03.73] I'm doing great. You know, I mean, it's the spring and it's sunny, I mean, that's you gotta look forward to some things you to get small wins every day. And I will just say that I do take a little bit of umbrage with the "devastating" comment. I think we're managing just fine. We're working our tails off as a community to rally. And it's not the first time that we've faced challenges and it won't be the last. And everyone, including or all of our businesses, have stepped up and risen to the occasion. So it's really inspiring. It's a it's a difficult time, but I'm very inspired by everything that's being done in our community.


Peter Biello: [00:49:38.89] Yeah, I mean, the The New York Times language may might be a little bit hyperbolic. So I wanted to get you to put it into perspective for us. I mean, not quite as accurate as as you would hoped it would be, this article?


Nik Coates: [00:49:50.5] I would say that a reporter has a job to do. And as economist here, I have a job to do and I respect what everybody needs to do. I don't think that devastating is the correct word. I think we have a challenge and we're working through it. We are really focused on keeping our community safe, rallying around and being optimistic. You know, sure, it's difficult when you hear people who have lost their jobs or have been furloughed. It's difficult to hear in your community. But this community is just amazing and the things that they've done. And I think what has been incredible is that people have taken what was seen as sort of a negative and turned it into a positive. And really, you know, one of the early things that we worked on was really trying to focus on getting everybody to work together. And I think that's the most important thing, is that as long as we stick together, we'll be just fine.


Peter Biello: [00:50:43.63] What have been the biggest challenges in your community? You had a big employer, a company that made that made parts for automakers. Among those, Ford. That that has they've laid off something like more than 250 people there. That was it. That was a big source of pain for people in Bristol. What what have been the biggest challenge in your community?


Nik Coates: [00:51:05.98] Well, to be honest, the biggest thing really is just trying to keep everybody on the same page with what the facts are. We're really working hard to provide good communications in the community to make sure people are staying safe. You know, as a community that has a lot of tourism, we're really kind of grappling with that. You know, how do we manage potentially more people coming up from hot spots and how do we manage our resources? And so that's really been the main focus. It's just really good communication and just really trying to carry on our operations. And most importantly, you know, I'm trying to just I'm just trying to be a listening ear to the community. And we've got a bunch of groups who are working together to call businesses, to call residents and just listen and know that people have resources available. And we've got all sorts of really neat things going on that we're doing with videos and really trying to help people feel connected. I think that's the most important thing, is that people feel connected to their community. We'll have a better result in the end.


Peter Biello: [00:52:09.19] And what are you hearing from residents? If you you're spending a lot of time listening, what are they saying to you?


Nik Coates: [00:52:15.29] You know, I mean, obviously, there's there's a lot of uncertainty about how long this will last and where it will go next. There's certainly some concern about what happens to our summer. I mean, you know, I had mentioned, I think in the Times article, just even talking about our beaches, we're just grappling with in truly sort of on the ground stuff that people are asking like, OK, how do I know, how do I get my beach permit or how do I file for unemployment or can I go to the park and use the playground? I mean, it's just really basic stuff that people are just worried about kind of carrying on their day to day lives. Look, what we're trying to do is just provide information to people so that they can feel at least the basics are are taking care of, or at least at a minimum, they have the ability to move on in a somewhat normal way.


Peter Biello: [00:53:01.37] The New York Times article, though you take umbrage with that word devastating, does profile a lot of positive things, people working together, neighbors delivering groceries for neighbors, for example, people giving away bags of apples. There's some nice photography there. How confident are you that the town is going to reach a new version of normal that residents are going to be happy with?


Nik Coates: [00:53:22.75] Well, I can tell you, you know, just like in 2008 when the economy went down, what happened with Bristol is a little bit unique. Instead of Bristol sort of rolling up the carpets and rolling up the doors, I think what really people focused in on is let's double down on ourselves. And so the selectmen at that time reinvested in their downtown and completely reinvented it. And we went from sort of almost a vacant downtown to a full downtown. And we've done all sorts of projects in town and we're working on some stuff in towns that really kind of move forward. So this isn't unique to Bristol. This challenge has happened before. Freudenberg has had challenges before...


Peter Biello: [00:54:04.18] Freudenberg's the big employer in town.


Nik Coates: [00:54:07.27] Yup, yup. And so, you know, they've gone through challenges and they're committed to Bristol. We're committed to Freudenberg. And, you know. So I guess what I'll say is that really, at the end of the day, you know, we've seen this challenge before. We we've risen up and we'll do it again because we've we have people who are committed. I've got great employees are committed to providing great service. We've got great community members who are all stepping up. And as you mentioned, you know, we've got like 70 volunteers who are out shopping for people. We've got people who are donating funds to social service agencies after buying gift cards from local restaurants. So and rattling them off, it's just people are being really, really great about each other. And that's how we're gonna get through it is if we stick together.


Peter Biello: [00:54:48.7] Nik Coate's Town administrator for Bristol. Really appreciate you joining us for the program today. Thank you very much.


Nik Coates: [00:54:53.95] I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.


Peter Biello: [00:54:55.69] And this has been the Weekly New Hampshire News Roundup.


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