N.H.’s new Secretary of State, on election integrity and potential changes to the state's voting process
For the first time in 45 years, New Hampshire has a new Secretary of State. David Scanlan stepped into the position following the retirement of Bill Gardner earlier this month. Scanlan previously served as Deputy Secretary of State for 20 years, working with Gardner to run the office that oversees everything from elections, to securities markets and risk pools, and keeps the state's vital records.
All Things Considered host Peter Biello interviewed Secretary Scanlan about the future of his position and elections in New Hampshire. Here are some of the key takeaways:
The option to vote by absentee ballot was expanded in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. About 260,000 voters in the Granite State chose that option. As the pandemic continues, will that still be available? What about afterwards?
According to Scanlan, as long as the pandemic continues, so will looser rules around absentee balloting. Previously, there were limited reasons why one would be able to cast an absentee ballot, like being out of state during election season or having a disability that made getting to the polls difficult. Once the pandemic recedes, Scanlan does not plan on making widespread absentee balloting available.
Republican lawmakers recently introduced legislation that would make big changes to the voting process: As written, new voters and those who lack the required ID would use a separate class of ballots and could have their votes tossed out if they don’t follow up with the right kind of paperwork. What problem is this intended to solve?
Scanlan says all those who are eligible to vote should be able to do so easily, but they must be verified to be eligible. The proposed legislation would have those without required ID use provisional ballots. Those voters must then return later with an official ID. Scanlan says it’s an example of the checks and balances on the system, and a way of restoring voters’ confidence in elections.
Disinformation and lack of trust in elections have run rampant in recent years. What role does the Secretary of State’s office have in combating that?
The responsibility of pushing back on falsehoods about election integrity lies more with bipartisan legislation than it does with the Secretary of State’s office, according to Scanlan.
Local elections officials have faced pushback and attacks from voters who doubt the integrity of elections. How does Scanlan plan to support those officials?
Scanlan says elections officials will be offered more extensive training on how to deal with potentially difficult situations. He says those workers are integral in making elections happen in New Hampshire, and the Secretary of State’s office will be making an effort to better inform voters about the integrity of elections to try and avoid conflict.
Scanlan is now the Secretary of State following the retirement of Bill Gardner. Usually, the position is elected by the legislature. Does he plan to run?
Yes, he does. That election will be held at the end of the year.
Below is a transcript of their conversation:
Peter Biello: This is All Things Considered on NHPR. I'm Peter Biello. After nearly a half century, New Hampshire has a new Secretary of State. David Scanlan became the state's top election official with the retirement of Bill Gardner earlier this month. Scanlan was Deputy Secretary of State for 20 years, and he'll now be running an office that oversees elections, securities markets, risk pools and the state's vital records. David Scanlan joins me now. Secretary Scanlan, thank you very much for speaking with me.
Secretary of State David Scanlan: Well, it's my pleasure to be here.
Peter Biello: Secretary Scanlan, tell us, how will your time in office be different from that of your predecessor?
Secretary of State David Scanlan: My time in office is really going to carry on a lot of the same duties and functions and practices that Secretary Gardner had in place. My focus is going to be on continuing that, and in terms of elections, I want to take some steps to try and restore faith that voters have in the outcome of the election process.
Peter Biello: Well, let's start there. How are you going to do that?
Secretary of State David Scanlan: Well, number one, we're going to be as transparent as possible in all aspects. Our process already is very transparent. But what most people don't realize is that conducting an election is a very long process. It's actually starting now. So we want to make sure that all the voters understand the entire process of an election, and we're going to be very forthcoming on how that process works.
Peter Biello: I want to ask you about some legislation currently at the Statehouse. Republican lawmakers recently introduced legislation that would make big changes to the voting process. As written, new voters and those who lack required ID would use a separate class of ballot, and they would have their votes tossed out if they don't follow up with the right kind of paperwork. The bill's sponsor said he worked with you to craft this legislation. So, could you tell us what problem you think this law would solve?
Secretary of State David Scanlan: Our election process is built on a system of checks and balances. Not only do we want to make it easy and convenient for people to vote, we also want to make sure that the people that are participating in the elections are actually qualified to cast their vote, and that's just part of the process. And so there are some efforts in play to counter the ease of voting with making sure that voters are properly qualified. My understanding of what is being proposed now, and it is something that we have worked on with a sponsor, is that a voter... that has not proven their qualifications beyond simply signing an affidavit would be able to go ahead and cast their ballot. But that ballot would be numbered similar to a challenged absentee ballot, where if the voter does not come back after the election is over with their proper qualifications, then that ballot that they cast could be retrieved and the votes on there subtracted from the overall count. It is a form of provisional ballot, which is used in almost every other state in the country. I believe it would comply with the New Hampshire Constitution that says that all ballots that are cast on the day of the election have to be counted on the day of the election. But it gets back to the fact that over the last three or four election cycles, we have seen a significant decline in the confidence that voters have in the outcome of the elections. And that's a serious problem because if that continues, then we should expect to see our voter participation rates drop because of that lack of confidence. And it is important that we restore the integrity of the process that people have faith in.
Peter Biello: Do you believe there is a rational basis for the belief that the elections here in New Hampshire lack integrity?
Secretary of State David Scanlan: I don't see a factual basis to dispute the elections that take place in New Hampshire, but part of the problem is that the rhetoric we're seeing at the national level, actually from both parties and just general perceptions and beliefs that are out there that haven't been adequately countered with the facts.
Peter Biello: So why would that rhetoric, that rhetoric that contains this misinformation, be best countered with partisan legislation as opposed to, say, more rhetoric from your office that counters that misinformation with actual good information about how elections are conducted here?
Secretary of State David Scanlan: Well, I'm a firm believer that legislation dealing with elections should not be Partisan right out of the gate and that goes to the national level too where they're discussing the Freedom to Vote Act primarily with support of one party. What happens in that instance is it just furthers the divide. What should be happening with elections, because it is the most fundamental right that a person has, is that legislation should pass on a bipartisan basis. Start there and then from that point, build out the ease of voting, along with the appropriate controls put in place to make sure that the people that are voting are qualified.
Peter Biello: In the last general election, the vote totals were record level and that was driven in large part by absentee ballots. More than 260,000 people in New Hampshire voted by absentee, which is a significant increase over the previous elections. And there were very little problems with that, very few problems with absentee voting in New Hampshire. So, is that a sign that perhaps this is worth keeping around? That people like it and that it increases access to the ballot?
Secretary of State David Scanlan: Well, I think we had high numbers of absentee ballots, primarily because of the pandemic conditions that we were experiencing. Far more voters actually turned out at the polls on the day of the general election, which is a sign to me that most voters still like to participate in person. New Hampshire does have a constitutional provision that limits the use of absentee ballots to specific reasons, one being absent [or] a disability or an illness that prevents a person from getting to the polls. As long as COVID is here, if individuals are either ill with COVID or under quarantine or just have concerns about showing up at a polling place and catching it, that's a reason to vote by absentee ballot. But to expand its use, I believe, would require a change in the language of our state constitution.
Peter Biello: Would you support such a change?
Secretary of State David Scanlan: I believe that voters should participate in person at the polling place whenever they have that opportunity.
Peter Biello: How do you plan to support local election officials who have often been at the receiving end of pushback, aggression, attacks around election integrity?
Secretary of State David Scanlan: It's unfair to those local election officials. They do their best to do a good job. It's a civic engagement activity on their part. They do it because it's important. They're not looking for any rewards and they're just trying to do their job. So, my hope would be that any voter going to a polling place would treat those individuals with a great deal of respect.
Peter Biello: And is there anything the Secretary of State's Office can do besides hope that voters behave themselves? In other words, are you planning on anything from your office that could protect them?
Secretary of State David Scanlan: That's a multifaceted question. I mean, number one, we do fairly extensive training now for local election officials, and part of that training is helping them to deal with difficult individuals. And they do a great job dealing with those situations. But we plan to enhance the training opportunities for local election officials, not only in that area but in all aspects of the election process.
Peter Biello: You're in this position now following the retirement of former Secretary of State Bill Gardner. It's a position usually chosen by the full Legislature after every statewide election. Do you have plans to run for the position at the end of the year?
Secretary of State David Scanlan: Yes, I definitely plan to run.
Peter Biello: Well, Secretary of State David Scanlan, thank you very much for speaking with me. I really appreciate it.
Secretary of State David Scanlan: Thank you. My pleasure.