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Local Election Officials Urging State to Move Quickly on COVID-19 Voting Plans

Zoom Screenshot
The inaugural meeting of the Secretary of State's "Select Committee on 2020 Emergency Election Support."

In New Hampshire, elections are largely an in-person event, but it's hard to socially distance at a polling place. And many poll workers and voters are trying to figure out how to conduct elections safely during the COVID-19 crisis. 

NHPR's Casey McDermott has been looking into how state and local election officials are trying to plan for this.

(Below is a transcript of a conversation between Casey McDermott and NHPR Morning Edition host Rick Ganley.)

Rick Ganley: Casey, we're already seeing the state relax its absentee voting rules. They did that a few weeks ago. So, technically, anyone who's worried about coronavirus can cast an absentee ballot — even if they're not sick. But it seems like that's just one of a few changes they're talking about. 

Casey McDermott: Right. So the election process is much broader than what happens when you cast a ballot. So there are now questions about, you know, how does someone register to vote to begin with, or how does someone update their party registration? Right now, there's a deadline [to update your party registration before the September state primary election] coming up on June 2. Normally, that's done in person. How do candidates or parties get on the ballot? [The candidate filing period for the fall elections] is slated to begin June 3. A lot of poll workers are concerned about getting adequate guidance in the weeks between now and then. And what is this all going to mean for the poll workers who run New Hampshire's elections? A lot of these people are volunteers, if they're paid at all it's usually very little. Many of them are are, frankly, older and in, you know, the highest risk category for COVID. So there's a lot of concerns about recruitment and staffing to actually get all of these things done at the polls.

So just last week, actually, the Secretary of State's office set up a new committee to work through a lot of these questions. And that committee is also trying to figure out how to spend $3 million in emergency election funding that New Hampshire received through a federal coronavirus relief package.

Rick Ganley: Three million sounds like a lot of money. Where is it going?

Casey McDermott: Yeah, I mean, it is a lot of money. But think about it this way. There's a lot of stuff, like we were saying, to cover when it comes to elections. The Secretary of State's office says a lot of that money will probably go toward helping towns deal with the huge expected increase in absentee ballot usage. So that could be things like postage or even things like publicity, getting the word out about these new rules or the new kind of procedures that are being looked at. They're also, however, looking at spending that money on protective gear, cleaning products, things like that. Efforts to educate voters, again, about new rules. They're also looking for an accounting firm, we should say, to help track the money and decide how to fairly distribute it, depending on the size of the voting population or other factors.

Rick Ganley: I can see where that $3 million would go fast. Has anything specific come out of the meeting so far?

Casey McDermott: Well, you know, one thing is for certain: It's attracting a lot of interest, especially from local election officials. These [meetings] are, of course, not held in person. They're held on Zoom. Each of those calls, those video conferences have attracted at least a hundred, if not hundreds of participants. And what's been really interesting is that there's the conversation that's happening on the actual call itself — so, between the committee members or whoever is testifying at a given time. But then there's what's happening on the chat sidebar. And what that chat sidebar is illuminating is that there are a lot of local officials who still really say they need a lot more guidance and a lot more clarity than what they've received so far from the state. You know, a lot of people are kind of typing away during these meetings saying there are important deadlines coming up in the next few weeks that they need to know how to handle, in addition to preparing for the fall. Some municipalities are also saying, you know, look, we still have our local elections coming up soon. And they're really clamoring for some more clarity from the state.

Rick Ganley: So, are they getting any clarity? Is it clear what voters should be expecting right now?

Casey McDermott: So that's still something of an open question. There probably will be some in-person voting, though almost everyone who's testified so far who is a local poll worker says that they're expecting, like we said, a big increase in absentee ballot requests. The in-person voting process could, however, look a little bit different. Some municipalities have talked about drive-through voting. One idea that was floated this week was the possibility of setting aside some of those large flex sites, those surge sites that were set up to accommodate a potential surge in coronavirus patients at hospitals, someone suggested could those be converted somehow to accommodate voting or to space voters out a little bit more. Again, that's not final yet but just one of the ideas that's come forward. And as for the actual rules itself, the state says more guidance is coming and they're trying to move as quickly as possible to make sure that they, you know, review all of the applicable laws and things like that. But it's also worth noting that a lot of the conversations and a lot of the themes that have come up in this new committee, things like how hard it is for local pollworkers to keep up with state rules and requirements, how to balance access to voting with measures meant to make sure that elections are run fairly and with integrity — these are all conversations that have been playing out in one way or another at the State House and in court for the last few years in New Hampshire. And these conversations really are likely to get even kind of sharper and come more into focus next week.

More information on the new committee handling coronavirus-related election planning can be found on the Secretary of State's website.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Casey is a Senior News Editor for NHPR. You can contact her with questions or feedback at cmcdermott@nhpr.org.
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