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Citing 'voter integrity' concerns, N.H. Republicans aim to overhaul same-day registration process

An election worker in Exeter sits at a check in table during the 2022 Town Meeting, as voters enter polling stations in the background
Todd Bookman
Some local election officials are lining up against this latest effort to rewrite New Hampshire’s same-day voter registration rules, citing concerns about creating longer waits on Election Day. But the state's top election official, Secretary of State Dave Scanlan, supports the measure.

A Republican-backed measure slated for a vote Thursday in the New Hampshire House could usher in the most far-reaching changes to New Hampshire’s elections in years, creating a provisional ballot system for voters who register at the polls without identification.

While this latest effort is part of a years-long campaign by State House Republicans to bring more “voter integrity” to New Hampshire through new voting restrictions, it also comes amid cries for election reform from conspiracy-driven activists who have been a growing presence on these debates for the past year.

Known as Senate Bill 418, the measure up for a vote this week has broad support among Republicans in the Legislature but still faces two potential hurdles, should it clear the House. For one, Gov. Chris Sununu has broken with his party and criticized the plan for potentially delaying the reporting of final election results. In addition, voting rights groups say the provisional ballot system may violate the state Constitution and are likely to ask the courts to block the law.

Under current law, New Hampshire voters who fail to bring proper identification on Election Day can still cast a ballot — they just have to sign an affidavit swearing that they meet the state’s eligibility requirements. If someone lies on that form, they could face fines or other legal penalties.

SB 418 would add new requirements for those who fail to bring identification to the polls when registering to vote for the first time in New Hampshire. Those voters would be permitted to cast a special “Affidavit Ballot,” which would be specially marked. They would then have seven days to return proof of identity to the Secretary of State’s office using a pre-paid envelope provided at the polls.

If a voter fails to return that paperwork in time, their ballot will be pulled, their votes deducted from election tallies and their names referred to the Attorney General for investigation.

As written, SB 418 would mark the most significant reform to the state’s election process since 2017, when Sununu and a Republican-controlled State House rallied behind another measure aimed at tightening voter registration rules. That measure, SB 3, was struck down last year by the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which declared in a 4-0 opinion that it “imposes unreasonable burdens on the right to vote.”

As was the case during State House debates over that earlier voting bill, some local election officials are lining up against this latest effort to rewrite New Hampshire’s same-day voter registration rules, citing concerns about creating longer waits on Election Day.

“It would cause confusion,” Sue Nastasi, who oversees Rollinsford’s voter checklist, told NHPR in an interview. “Why are we doing this? It’s always been done smoothly before.”

Derry Town Clerk Daniel Healy also told lawmakers during a public hearing this month that the measure is “a solution to a problem that does not really exist.” Healy, who oversees the largest single voting precinct in the state, also warned that postal delays could cause “many legitimate votes to be negated to counter the rare occurrence of an illegally cast ballot.”

But the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Dave Scanlan, is breaking with these local election officials in support of the measure. In testimony to lawmakers, Scanlan has framed this new policy as a potential solution to what he views as the biggest threat to elections: “a serious decline in voter confidence.”

“We are seeing it in New Hampshire,” he said, “but we are also seeing it nationally.”

National pollshave found that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they lack faith in the electoral process, including an NPR/PBS/Marris poll that found that more than two-thirds of supporters of former President Donald Trump said they didn’t have trust in the system.

Rep. Ross Berry, a Manchester Republican who sits on the House Election Law Committee, said the current system lacks substantive safeguards to prevent out-of-state residents, or even international visitors, from fraudulently voting in New Hampshire using a fake name or address.

“The fact that anyone could walk into any polling location on Election Day, present nothing, register to vote, and be handed a full ballot, is actually kind of offensive,” Berry said.

While Berry said he doesn’t believe voter fraud is rampant in New Hampshire, he pointed to the handful of prosecutions that have been brought by the Attorney General’s office, mostly for people who voted in two states, as evidence some level of fraud does take place.

According to data provided to NHPR, the Attorney General’s office received 26 complaints alleging wrongful voting following the 2020 election. (More than 790,000 votes were cast for president in New Hampshire’s general election that same year.) The agency also said four people have been prosecuted for illegally voting in the state in the last three years.

Democrats and voting rights activists caution that Republican lawmakers’ latest effort to overhaul New Hampshire’s registration rules may be unconstitutional, in part because of how ballots would be subtracted from announced totals more than a week after Election Day. Critics have also raised concerns about the possibility of misinformation swirling during a week-long period when election results aren’t yet finalized in close races.

“Suspicions arise,” said Liz Tentarelli, president of the New Hampshire League of Women Voters. “Voters lose confidence in the election.”

Tentarelli also noted the potential for a close presidential primary, when town election officials might not be able to provide firm results to a nation with its eyes on New Hampshire.

That scenario played out disastrously for Iowa during its 2020 caucus, when a cascade of technical issues delayed the Democratic Party from declaring a winner between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, tarnishing the state’s reputation and putting its place at the front of the pack among states in serious jeopardy.

The bill has already cleared the state Senate, but could face a potential veto from Sununu, who recently said he opposed provisional ballots because they could delay determining a winner in a close race.

“The problem I have, generally, with provisional ballots is that you may not get a final result for days after an election, and that’s a problem,” Sununu recently told reporters, though he declined to say if he would veto the measure. “New Hampshire has always had a great system where you get the results that night.”

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.
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