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To Ease Election Day Crowding, UNH And Durham Will Offer Early Absentee Voting On Campus

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Dan Tuohy | NHPR

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect changes UNH made, after this piece was first published, to how it publicized the absentee voting events.

University of New Hampshire students will be able to register and vote absentee on campus in October. It's part of a strategy to cut down on crowding and long lines at Durham's polling place, which is often one of the busiest in the state during high-turnout elections. 

Initially, an advisory on UNH's website described the upcoming campus voting events as "Early Voting Opportunities." After this story was published, the sessions were rebranded as "Absentee Voting Opportunities."

The university also, after this story was first published, clarified that these events are only open to students who live in Durham. Students who live outside of Durham will need to contact their local elections office to register or request an absentee ballot. 

(Whether you're a student or not, NHPR wants to hear how you're participating in this year's elections. Share your thoughts or questions about voting with us at elections@nhpr.org.) 

Since any eligible New Hampshire voter can cast an absentee ballot early this year, Durham and UNH officials have come up with a plan to allow students to take care of the whole process — from registration to returning their absentee ballot — on the spot, if they choose. A similar process is available to other New Hampshire voters who show up in-person to request and return absentee ballots at their city or town halls.

"Students can come, register to vote and actually fill out a request for an absentee ballot, get that absentee ballot, sit down at another table and vote, and turn in their absentee ballot right there, all rolled into one," explained Ann Shump, a Durham voter checklist supervisor who's working with the university to coordinate the events.

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Durham officials regularly offer pre-election registration opportunities to students ahead of big elections. While those are usually open to anyone, students will have to register for a limited number of spots in advance of the upcoming sessions because of social distancing concerns.

Shump said she and other participating election officials will take COVID-19 tests beforehand, too, as a precaution. 

Crowd control is always a concern for New Hampshire’s busiest polling places. But the pandemic has added even more challenges to the mix — especially in Durham, where more than 3,000 new voters showed up to register at the polls November 2016.

Even if fewer new voters wait until the last minute to register this year, Shump cautioned that lines could still appear longer because people will need to space out when waiting to register or pick up their ballots.

And on top of that, Shump said, registrars will be able to only work with one prospective voter at a time, whereas in the past, they were able to help two or more.

“We won't be able to go through as many people as we have done in the past in the same amount of time,” Shump said. “So everybody needs to bring their patience.”

If more people, students or otherwise, register and vote early this year, Shump said it'll help make the process safer and efficient for those are at the polls on Nov. 3.

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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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