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Ballot Boxes and Masks At The Ready, N.H. Prepares To Vote Amid Coronavirus

Dan Tuohy, NHPR

Tuesday is going to be a learning experience for voters and election officials alike, as New Hampshire navigates its first election of the COVID-19 era.

Heading into the state primary, local pollworkers were briefed on new absentee ballot procedures, outfitted with personal protective equipment and coached on how to achieve safe social distancing while juggling voter registration and other Election Day demands. And last week, New Hampshire’s local election officials also got a new kind of training, one meant to help them deal with new challenges presented by COVID-19: a class on effective communication and de-escalation techniques from New Hampshire’s Police Standards and Training Council.

The Secretary of State’s office organized the class on relatively short notice Friday at the request of local election officials, some of whom have been warning that they feel ill-equipped to respond if voters refuse to comply with mask rules or other new COVID-related procedures. The state has offered guidance on how to handle Election Day mask requirements but has left the responsibility of setting and enforcing those rules up to local officials

We want to hear from you: How is your voting experience during COVID-19? Let us know at elections@nhpr.org. You can also find out more about how to vote and where to go for help in our voting guide.

Last week’s de-escalation training was provided by John Scippa, director of the state Police Standards and Training Council. Scippa, who usually works with law enforcement and other first responders, offered pollworkers tips on how to maintain a calm demeanor when someone else is getting angry, how to read nonverbal cues and how to otherwise diffuse tension. And he encouraged local election officials to take the high road as much as possible when dealing with concerns.

“In this day and age, ladies and gentlemen, without getting on a soapbox, your professionalism is really going to represent and strengthen democracy,” Scippa said. “Now more than ever in our country, a lot of people have concerns, and your ability to be a professional during these elections is really going to pass that feeling and that knowledge that democracy is safe.”

Assistant Attorney General Anne Edwards said her agency also briefed local law enforcement last week “to ensure that they are prepared to respond should there be any concerns at polling locations given the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.” The attorney general’s office says about 80 agencies participated in that call.

As in every election, personnel from the attorney general’s office will fan out to polling places across the state to monitor how things are going and offer help as needed. Anyone who runs into problems —  whether they’re a pollworker or a member of the public —  can call the state’s election hotline at 1-866-868-3703 (1-866-VOTER03) or email electionlaw@doj.nh.gov.

“We have been speaking with local election officials regularly on calls and trainings regarding dealing with individuals at polling places who may not be in agreement with the rules,” Edwards told NHPR. “This is an issue at every election, as people do not always want to comply with the rules of the polling places.”

And as if running an election in a pandemic weren’t enough of a challenge, some communities have another milestone to work through on Tuesday: the first day of the new school year. That’s the case in Londonderry, where the local polling place also happens to be the high school.

Town Manager Kevin Smith said traffic will likely be tricky (or, as he put it on Twitter Monday afternoon, “a _____show”) but a little grace will go a long way toward making everyone’s life easier.

“We’re just out there asking people to be patient, to be understanding, to be kind to one another as we all navigate this together,” Smith said. “I think if everyone does that, we’ll all be in good shape. Kids will get to school on time, people will be able to vote.”

Even if Tuesday remains calm, local pollworkers will still have their hands full processing a record number of absentee ballots. As of Monday morning, according to the Secretary of State’s office, 75,287 absentee ballots had already been returned for the state primary. That’s at least eight times as many absentee ballots as were cast in the 2016 primary election.

The final absentee voting total in the state primary could be much higher, as more than 100,000 absentee requests had been filed as of Monday. Voters could return their absentee ballots at local clerks offices Monday afternoon or drop them off at the polls on Election Day. And, of course, polling places will also be open for anyone who prefers to go inside a voting booth or otherwise take care of their ballot on Election Day.

Given the changes to the way New Hampshire runs its elections in the past few months, Secretary of State Bill Gardner said he’s open to hearing from the public about how it all goes.

“We’d really appreciate feedback from the voters, what you hear from the voters, and the experience this time,” Gardner told pollworkers during a call organized by his office last week. “Hopefully we’ll never have one again like this in a hundred years. But you never know.”

Casey McDermott is an editor and reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, where she works with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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