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Facing Court Challenge From Disability Rights Advocates, N.H. Expands Accessible Absentee Voting

Annie Ropeik, NHPR
Voters who experience print disabilities will now have a way to complete their absentee ballot electronically, and return it by mail or in-person.

With a week to go before the state primary election, New Hampshire is launching a new absentee voting system meant to allow more voters to cast a ballot privately and independently. 

Until now, New Hampshire did not allow those who are blind or experience other print disabilities to request or complete an absentee ballot without assistance. Accessible voting options are provided at all New Hampshire polling places, but many voters — with the encouragement of state election officials — will rely on absentee voting this fall due to the ongoing pandemic.

(Click here or scroll to the bottom of this post for more details on how to request an accessible absentee ballot.)

The new absentee voting options come as the state faces a lawsuit from a coalition of disability rights advocates, who say officials have known about the barriers inherent to New Hampshire’s previous absentee balloting system long before the pandemic

The state has enlisted the help of VotingWorks, which calls itself a “non-partisan non-profit” election technology provider, to set up the new system.

Under the new system, a qualifying New Hampshire voter can request an accessible absentee ballot electronically and fill it out on their own computer. But as VotingWorks President Matt Pasternack emphasized, the voter’s choices will not be shared electronically. Instead, voters will need to print and return a physical copy of their completed absentee ballot — which, he said, provides an added layer of security. 

"What's really, really important about this process is printing out the ballot and mailing back in the piece of paper and having the confidence that it was your paper ballot that was counted, and not an online vote,” Pasternack told NHPR on Monday. “In no way is this system online voting."

(Do you have a question about voting in this year's elections? Let us know at elections@nhpr.org, and we'll try to get you an answer or incorporate it into NHPR's voter guide.)

The state says the new system will only be available to “voters who have a print disability that makes use of the system necessary.” When requesting the accessible absentee ballot, a voter will have to sign a form confirming that they meet this criteria.  

In a joint press release issued Monday, the disability rights groups challenging New Hampshire’s absentee voting procedures in court praised the new system as a step in the right direction.

“We are very pleased that the Secretary of State implemented an accessible registration process and voting system so quickly,” said Disability Rights Center - New Hampshire Executive Director Stephanie Patrick. “People with disabilities have the right to vote privately and independently, even during a pandemic and now they can do so.”

Daniel Frye, one of three voters involved in the lawsuit, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the potential of the state’s new system. At the same time, it came too late to allow him to make full use of it before the state primary. With the clock ticking down ahead of the Sept. 8 primary, Frye, who is blind, said he already secured an absentee ballot (“regrettably, with the assistance of someone”) before the new system was announced.

“That experience was fairly humiliating, because I had to make it clear that it was something I could not do entirely on my own,” Frye said. “But I do have my absentee ballot. Now that I do have it, I will endeavor to to lodge my absentee ballot using the accessible system that has been created.”

Last week, Gov. Chris Sununu signed off on the use of $30,000 from the state’s CARES Act funding pool to cover the costs of a new accessible absentee voting system. The state has not yet provided a copy of its contract with VotingWorks, the vendor chosen to implement the new system. 

Here’s how to request an accessible absentee ballot, according to the state’s new guidance:

  • Call the Secretary of State’s Election Division Hotline at 1-833-726-0034 to notify officials after submitting the application.
  • If approved, you will receive an electronic version of an absentee ballot, which you can sign and fill out on a computer. Again, an electronic signature will be considered valid on this paperwork. You will also receive an absentee ballot packet in the mail.

More information on New Hampshire’s accessible absentee voting and registration process can be found on the Secretary of State’s website. Voters who need help can contact the Secretary of State’s election hotline at 1-833-726-0034.

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