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A Challenge for Summer Special Election Campaigns: Rounding Up Vacationing Voters' Absentee Ballots

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Special elections always present a challenge for campaigns — and even more so in the summer, when vacations and other activities can easily take precedence over politics in the minds of most voters. With this in mind, those involved in the upcoming District 16 State Senate race are pushing absentee voting as a way to remind voters to participate.

On Democratic candidate Kevin Cavanaugh’s website, a link directly to the state’s absentee voter application is just a few clicks away. Canvassers going door-to-door on Cavanaugh's behalf also have paperwork ready.

"If they're eligible to vote absentee, our volunteers have a form ready for them that they give to them, that the voter can fill out and turn in to request a ballot," said Cavanaugh campaign manager Brexton Isaacs.

On Republican candidate and former State Sen. David Boutin’s website, a button right on the homepage invites people to “request an absentee ballot” and queues up an email directly to campaign manager.

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"We just thought it was easier, and quite honestly faster, if when you click on the link it would just automatically send an email to someone on the campaign that could help them process their request faster," said Boutin campaign manager PeriklisKaroutas.

One NHGOP mailer making the rounds in Hooksett makes absentee voting sound even simpler at first glance: “VOTING FOR REPUBLICAN DAVID BOUTIN BY MAIL IS AS EASY AS 1-2-3.” Inside, it includes an absentee ballot application and a note from NHGOP Chairwoman Jeanie Forrester encouraging people to apply for one if they think they might be away from home on the day of the election.

When asked, the New Hampshire Democratic Party said it has not sent out its own mailers with absentee information for this race.

Amid this push from political campaigns on both sides, Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan says it’s important for voters to understand the absentee ballot process comes with a few caveats.

“The campaigns kind of push the envelope a little bit in terms of the language that is used inferring to the voters that it is easy to vote by mail without in the first instance clarifying that the request is for an absentee ballot and there are specific reasons for which you can request an absentee ballot,” Scanlan said.

Under the state’s current absentee voting law, those reasons include being out of town on the day of the election, or being prevented from getting to the polls because of a disability, a religious commitment or work.

The NHGOP, New Hampshire Democratic Party and the Cavanaugh campaign all said they support a move toward “no-excuse” absentee voting, which is an option in more than two dozen other states. The Boutin campaign didn't immediately respond to a follow-up question about his stance on the issue.

Scanlan said it makes sense that campaigns would use this as a strategy to increase turnout, especially in a special election: “To the extent that the campaign can get their voters to get their votes in, it’s like money in the bank.”

But he also said absentee voting in New Hampshire is “potentially subject to some abuse,” and it’s really supposed to be up to the voters — not the campaigns — to shepherd their ballots through the process.

“They’re the ones who are supposed to request the absentee ballot,” Scanlan said. “The voter should be marking their ballot privately and then making sure the ballot gets back to the town clerk.”

(Separately, it's worth noting New Hampshire is facing a lawsuit from the local branch of the ACLU over its existing absentee ballot counting procedures. The organization accuses the state of violating voters' rights by unconstitutionally tossing absentee ballots because of signature mismatch.)

Asked about their respective strategies around absentee voting, the Cavanaugh and Boutin campaigns, along with the NHGOP, said the timing of the special election made it especially important to reach out to voters who might be out of town.

“Many voters take a vacation during the summer months,” NHGOP spokesman Patrick Hynes wrote in an email. “We obviously want to make sure they have an opportunity to participate in the special election.”

Just in case you need to mark the date in your calendar, or request an absentee ballot yourself, the District 16 State Senate special election — for the record — is July 25. More details on the absentee voting process can be found on the Secretary of State’s website.

Casey McDermott is a senior news editor at New Hampshire Public Radio. Throughout her time as an NHPR reporter and editor, she has worked with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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