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Local Pollworkers Plead With State to Adjust Absentee Process Before November

Dan Tuohy / NHPR
Rye Town Moderator Bob Eaton confers with a local election official while "pre-processing" absentee ballots Sept. 3 in the junior high gym. For 2020, election officials are allowed to process some paperwork that is typically done on Election Day.

Looking ahead to November, some New Hampshire pollworkers are warning that delays are in store if the state doesn’t grant them more leeway in processing absentee ballots before Election Day.

Nearly 50 local election officials sent a letter to Gov. Chris Sununu this week requesting the ability to more clearly mark the voter checklist to show that someone's absentee ballot has been inspected before Election Day. The changes outlined in the letter also have the support of the New Hampshire City and Town Clerks Association.

Without changes to the current process, the election officials told Sununu, “voters should expect longer wait times at the polls and we may not see election results in a timely manner.”

Sununu’s Chief of Staff Jayne Millerick told NHPR the governor's office received the letter and is “currently reviewing it." The Secretary of State’s office has not responded to NHPR’s request for comment.

A new law meant to accommodate a surge in absentee ballots due to COVID-19 allows New Hampshire pollworkers to start “pre-processing” absentee ballots a few days before the election, rather than waiting until the polls open.

Even with this change, pollworkers are not allowed to open the envelope containing a voter’s absentee ballot or begin counting ballots until Election Day. They are, however, allowed to check whether a voter has included all of the necessary signatures and paperwork with their absentee ballot, a time-consuming step that would otherwise have to wait until after the polls open. Members of the public are also allowed to raise challenges to a ballot’s validity during pre-processing, as they would at the polls on Election Day.

If there are no issues with the absentee paperwork and no challenge is raised, the law says “a notation may be made on the checklist to help facilitate processing of the ballot on election day.” The law doesn’t specify what kind of notation is acceptable. But the Secretary of State’s office has issued its own guidance on the matter, which local election officials say is too restrictive.

“The notation may not be drawing a thin line through the voter’s name, putting a checkmark in the box for that voter, or marking ‘A.V.’ in red ink,” the Secretary of State’s office wrote in an August memo. “That final marking of the checklist must be done on election day at the polling place.”

It might seem like a minor thing, but New Hampshire City and Town Clerks Association President Marge Morgan said the kind of checklist notations the Secretary of State has banned are crucial to ensuring a more efficient absentee ballot process in November.

The same checklist that’s used to track absentee voters is also used at the check-in table for voters who show up at the polls. So, under the current process, Morgan said pollworkers who are trying to finish processing absentee ballots on Election Day have to keep interrupting other colleagues who need to deal with in-person voters. The result, she said, is that everything — voter check-in and absentee ballot counting — gets slowed down.

“I’m a small town, so it wasn’t horrible for us,” Morgan said. “But some of the larger towns who have five, six, seven precincts, you know, they’re there until two-dark-thirty in the morning.”

Nearly 100 communities chose to pre-process some ballots in the state primary earlier this month. But Manchester —  which had about 5,300 absentee voters, more than anywhere else — wasn’t one of them. City Clerk Matt Normand said he was initially looking forward to taking advantage of this new option, it wasn’t worth it without the ability to more clearly mark the voter checklist ahead of time.

The limited timeframe for pre-processing also isn't ideal, Normand said. Under the current law, it's only allowed to happen on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Monday before an election. That's crunch time for a lot of communities trying to deal with other pre-Election Day preparations, and Normand said it would ease pressure on busy voting districts like his if they could start pre-processing a full week before the election.

Normand understands some voters who cast an absentee ballot might like to retain the ability to change their mind and vote in-person on Election Day. But he says marking the checklist as he and other clerks have proposed won’t prevent anyone from doing that.

“The tabulation still happens on Election Day,” he said. “The voter still, you know, has the potential to come in person and, you know, get there prior to their processing of that absentee and vote in person.”

Normand hopes the state issues some kind of clarification that allows Manchester to pre-process its absentee ballots more efficiently for the November election, not just to make the process easier on pollworkers but also to ensure there’s more time to detect potential mistakes on voters’ absentee ballot paperwork before Election Day. He said 219 absentee ballots were rejected in Manchester during the state primary, and nearly 175 of those were because of paperwork errors like a missing signature or envelope.

If Manchester were able to more easily offer pre-processing, Normand said it would be easier to reach out to voters to give them a chance to fix mistakes like these before Election Day.

“The state has an opportunity to provide the single biggest positive impact on how things run in November with this issue, resolving this issue,” Normand said.

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Casey McDermott is an editor and reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, where she works with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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