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Attorney General Says N.H. GOP Broke Election Law, Orders Halt On Party's Mailers


This story was with additional information after the New Hampshire Republican Party clarified its plans for correcting the mistake on its mailers. You can read the party's plan in full here.

The Attorney General’s office says an absentee ballot application distributed by the New Hampshire Republican Party violates state election law and may confuse voters, and has ordered party officials to stop mailing it immediately. 

The order, issued Friday, is the latest round of scrutiny from the Attorney General over a series of state GOP election mailers that have gone out in recent weeks. The mailers aim to encourage people to vote absentee in the upcoming elections, as New Hampshire has expanded absentee voting rules amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Attorney General's office, as well as many of the mailers' recipients, say they are confusing and potentially misleading. 

The first batch of GOP mailers, sent in early August, directed recipients on how to register to vote absentee, but the forms included incorrect information on where to return them, a mistake the Republican Party blamed on a “printing error.” Many of the mailers were also addressed to long-deceased people who had never lived at the listed address.

The second batch of mailers, which went out last week, included directions for recipients to request their actual absentee ballot, but failed to correctly reproduce the proper application.

"The State [Republican] Committee's choice to publish this defective form more than two weeks prior to the September State Primary may cause voter confusion and frustration," the Department of Justice said in a cease and desist order issued Friday. The order also required the state Republican Party to come up with a plan for letting the recipients of the mailer know that the absentee ballot form it includes is faulty.

In accordance with the state's orders, the state Republican Party outlined that plan in a memo issued Aug. 31. The party said it would contact people who filled out the absentee ballot mailer that prompted the cease and desist order, relying on information from the United States Postal Service, to let them know the form they filled out would not be sufficient for voting in the September primary election.

After that memo was issued, Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards told NHPR the party's solution was an "adequate remedy" and said her office would be ensuring compliance moving forward.

Have questions about voting amid the pandemic? Check out NHPR's 2020 Voter's Guide

State investigators are still reviewing the first batch of roughly 50,000 mailers, which directed recipients to return their completed absentee registration form to the Durham town clerk’s office, even if they did not live in Durham. In fact, voters seeking to register to vote absentee need to contact their local town or city clerk.

The cease and desist order issued to the state Republican Party on Friday is targeted at the party’s second batch of mailers. State law allows third-party groups to help voters secure absentee ballots, but specifies that they must use the same request form used by the Secretary of State.

In an interview after the state first issued its cease and desist order, Edwards said the form in the state GOP’s mailer is flawed for two reasons: it doesn’t give voters the option to request a ballot for the September primary election; and it doesn’t specify that a person who helps a disabled voter fill out the ballot application must sign their name on the form.

Edwards said Department of Justice officials are concerned that some voters may believe that by returning the state party’s application, they will get a ballot for the September primary election, when in fact the form does not include that option.

In its cease and desist order, the Attorney General notes that the state Republican Party said it got the approval of Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan for its absentee ballot application. But the order notes that Scanlan’s approval “is not a basis for the [state Republican Party] not to comply with New Hampshire law as the Secretary of State’s Office does not have the general authority to waive provisions of the law.”

In an emailed statement, New Hampshire GOP spokesman Joe Sweeney said the party “acted in good faith” in mailing out the absentee ballot request forms after getting the “approval” of the Secretary of State’s office.

“Now that the attorney general has raised concerns with them, we are quickly remedying the situation as we work to encourage as many eligible voters to participate in the electoral process as possible,” Sweeney wrote.

Sweeney declined to answer additional questions about the mailers. A spokesperson for the New Hampshire Secretary of State did not respond to an email seeking comment Friday afternoon.

Edwards said the state Department of Justice is also investigating why the mailers included such a range of incorrect address information. Her office has learned of some mailers going to out-of-state residents, directing them to apply for an absentee ballot in New Hampshire. Edwards said investigators have been in contact with state GOP officials, as well as outside vendors involved in the printing of the mailers.

“We’re continuing to investigate and review those,” Edwards said.

The Attorney General’s office has not issued any financial penalty against the Republican Party over the mailers, though the party will be required to reimburse the state for the time spent on the investigation, including sorting through and redirecting the absentee registration requests that were returned to the wrong clerk’s office, Edwards said.

Friday’s cease-and-desist order gave the state GOP until Monday to present a plan for how it will notify everyone who received one of its absentee ballot request forms that they can’t be used for the September primary election.

“Any future failure to comply with our State’s election laws may result in this Office seeking enforcement action,” the order read.

While justice officials still have questions about how the mailers came to include so many mistakes, Edwards said the incident should not raise broader concerns about voters’ ability to cast absentee ballots this election cycle.

“This shouldn't be a red flag at all,” she said. “Our town and city clerks and all our election officials are on top of making sure that absentee ballots go out to people who want them in a timely fashion. We want people to vote and do so in a manner they are comfortable doing.”

Any New Hampshire resident concerned about exposure to COVID-19 can register remotely and vote absentee in this year’s elections. To do either, voters should contact their town clerk to request the necessary forms. Contact info for town clerks compiled by the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office can be found here.

Dan is NHPR's news director.

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