When is it 'reasonable' to remove a voter from the checklist? In N.H., it depends on who you ask
For nearly all of the past 31 years, Kate Ratta has lived in Hollis.
It’s where she registers her car, her dog, and where she thought she was registered to vote.
Then a few weeks ago, she got a letter telling her the town was taking steps to remove her from the voter checklist, “that I had 30 days from the date of the letter to prove my domicile status here in Hollis,” she recalled.
Ratta had received what’s known as a “30 Day Letter,” a formal document that instructs voters to prove they are still residents if their local election officials believe they are no longer eligible to vote. The names of recipients who don’t respond are removed from the voter checklist.
The letter sent to Ratta from the town of Hollis said it had “come to our attention” that she may no longer live there.
“I was a little baffled, and concerned because I vote in just about every single election that I can,” she said.
The letter threatening to remove her from the voter rolls came from the town’s Supervisors of the Checklist. In the unglamorous machinery of local elections, the supervisors are cogs with one basic task: add new voters who move into town or turn 18-years old, and remove those people from the list who move out or die.
In the past, these officials largely operated out of public view, meeting a few times per year, to process new voter registrations or decide who should receive 30 Day Letters, which are required before a voter can be expunged from the rolls.
But since the 2020 election and subsequent false claims of widespread voter fraud, these lists have come under more scrutiny, including by some supporters of President Donald Trump.
So how did Kate Ratta, who lives in her childhood home in Hollis, come to get one of these 30 Day Letters?
Mary Thomas, who was elected to a six-year term as a Hollis supervisor in 2020, said she and her two colleagues were looking over the checklist this summer, and spotted the names of younger people who had gone through the public schools with their own kids.
“Hollis is a small town,” Thomas told NHPR. “One of my supervisors worked with the lacrosse group. I was a Scout leader, so we are familiar with the families.”
NHPR interviewed Thomas several times. Initially, she said the supervisors began noting the names of younger people, including the classmates of their own kids, who had long since graduated high school and were therefore, in their view, likely no longer living in town.
“That is basically the group we looked at, was kind of the age range of say 25-35,” said Thomas.
Hollis sent 30 Day Letters to this group, including Kate Ratta, along with letters to other people identified through property transfer records and other indications that they no longer lived in Hollis.
But according to the New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan, Hollis’s system for identifying these younger voters, as initially described by Thomas, doesn’t follow the process laid out in state law.
“It is not appropriate for 30 Day Letters to be sent out based on profiling, whether it is because of an age issue, or because of it being an issue related to ethnicity,” said Scanlan.
Under guidelines in the state’s official election manual, supervisors need to have a “reasonable basis” before sending a 30 Day Letter to a voter. In short, it must be more likely than not that the person is no longer eligible to vote in town.
“There has to be evidence to support the action that they take,” said Scanlan.
Towns appear to have wide latitude in how much energy they spend cleaning up the voter rolls. Some supervisors scan through property transfer records, while others attempt to get in touch with residents who fail to renew dog licenses to see if they still live in town. Other supervisors, according to Scanlan, aren’t as enterprising.
“Not all boards of supervisors are the same, and some are more proactive than others in keeping their rolls up to date,” he said.
Scanlan said accurate voting rolls help ensure a smooth process at polling places on election day. Political campaigns also rely on voter lists to reach out to potential voters.
This summer, the state began using official change of address requests to the United States Postal Service to update the statewide voter database. And every 10 years, the state’s entire list goes through a sieve: any voter who hasn’t cast a ballot in four years is automatically purged, a process done earlier this decade that resulted in the removal of about 200,000 names.
Even with that clean up, and other efforts by supervisors, the voter checklist is out of date the moment it’s printed.
“One thing that the citizens of New Hampshire should understand is that that list is dynamic,” said Scanlan. “It is changing every single day, as people move in and out of the state, as people pass away.”
In part because of that fluidity, and the time lag it can take to enter death records or process change of address forms, checklists have come under more scrutiny since the 2020 election, when Trump falsely claimed thousands of dead people voted in the Georgia presidential election.
In places like Derry, where Judy Strakalaitis is a longtime supervisor, some activists have brought forward their own catalog of names claiming they don’t belong on the checklist.
“It’s always easy to criticize from the outside when you don't understand what the law is and what the legal implications are of removing somebody from the checklist,” she said.
Strakalaitis added that supervisors do rely on residents to let them know when someone has moved, including neighbors and family members. But before sending a 30 Day Letter, she said officials in Derry need evidence, as required under the law.
In Hollis, where Kate Ratta questioned why she had received a 30 Day Letter, Supervisor Mary Thomas originally wrote her an email saying she fell “in the age range of 24-35.” Thomas would later tell NHPR that the email was written in error, and that the town did in fact use other means to identify those who should receive letters.
The New Hampshire Attorney General took a look at the system Hollis used, and found no wrongdoing.
But when asked why Ratta was sent a 30 Day Letter, Thomas didn’t have an answer, which doesn't give Ratta a great deal of confidence.
“I think it's a problematic way to go about it,” she said. “There is just a little too much room for error when you are relying on your memory that way.”
No matter the system Hollis used, Ratta did provide proof she still lives in town. When she went to vote last week in the state primary election, her name was on the checklist.