Despite Concerns, Preparation Pays Off For N.H. Poll Workers
That sound you heard across New Hampshire on Tuesday was a collective exhale over months of pent-up election anxiety — not about the final results, but about what kind of chaos or confusion or conflict a presidential election in the time of coronavirus, under the distant but looming threat of civil unrest, might have in store.
Throughout the summer and fall, local election officials worried. They worried about whether the changes put in place to allow voting to proceed safely despite COVID-19 would actually work. They worried whether they could handle a crush of absentee ballots in a year when in-person turnout could also be seismic. They worried whether they would be able to recruit enough poll workers to carry out all of these tasks. And they worried whether Election Day would bring out the worst in a polarized electorate.
As the polls opened, the answers to those questions came into focus: Many of the changes to election procedures, while challenging, appeared to run smoothly. Many communities were pleasantly surprised at the outpouring of volunteers who signed up to work at the polls. Many people voted absentee and in-person, but no significant traffic jams emerged. And many people were, as it turns out, civil and patient with their neighbors and neighborhood election officials alike along the way.
“I commented to my 7-year-old daughter, who my husband and I bring with us every single time we vote right into the booth, that we are lucky to live in a small town where voting is very quick and very simple,” said Beverly Nicolo-Stroh, one of many New Hampshire voters who shared her perspective with NHPR on Tuesday. “We talked about how, for so many other people, it’s a much more difficult process that can take many many hours, and can be far away. She said that everyone should be able to vote as easily as we did, and I said she is very correct.”
Final vote totals were still being tallied as the clock approached midnight Tuesday evening, but New Hampshire was already on track to break absentee voting records well before the polls opened. As of Tuesday morning, more than 235,000 — nearly a quarter of registered voters — had cast an absentee ballot, and more trickled in throughout the day. Overall turnout also appeared to be brisk, and many precincts reported long lines of eager voters throughout the day.
Local election officials had a lot to juggle this year, to be sure. But they also prepared. And that’s what officials overseeing the process say made all the difference.
“We certainly want to emphasize the efforts, the diligent efforts of our election officials,” Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Chong Yen, who oversees the state’s Election Law Unit, told NHPR Tuesday evening. “Because at the end of the day, they were the ones on the front lines who are really putting forward the best effort in light of the challenging circumstances.”
While Tuesday was, by many accounts, calmer than even election officials were anticipating, it wasn't an altogether uneventful day.
There were scattered reports of disputes over what kind of political attire people could wear inside the polls, despite the state’s best efforts to clear up the rules ahead of the election. (The answer: Broad statements not connected to a specific candidate, like “Black Lives Matter,” are perfectly acceptable. Logos or slogans clearly linked to a candidate on the ballot, like “Make America Great Again,” are not.)
There were also issues with New Hampshire’s aging ballot-counting devices, many of them decades old and prone to technical problems, even during average elections. This year, this equipment was stressed on several extra fronts. For one, they were, in many cases, handling a record number of ballots. Some larger cities and towns even invested in extra machines to handle the load. On top of that, absentee ballots mailed to voters were also folded to fit inside their envelopes, and the thick creases caused some problems when being fed into the machines.
"Our only slow spot has been unfolding absentee ballots and getting them to feed through our counting device,” Hopkinton Moderator Sara Persechino reported around 6:30 p.m. “We were using a wallpaper roller, which wasn't very effective, but got a hot tip from a moderators list serv to use a marker and it's going better."
As closing time approached in Derry, one machine gummed up because someone fed it a ballot that was damp with hand sanitizer. Around 10:30 p.m. in Londonderry, the town manager reported that they’d need to run approximately 16,000 ballots through the machines again in the morning because of a technical issue. About an hour later, the same town manager said their plans had changed: Londonderry officials would try to run those ballots through the machines "beginning tonight and continuing into the wee hours of the morning" instead. (Heading into Tuesday, state election officials cautioned their local counterparts that, according to New Hampshire's Constitution, "counting of ballots cannot be adjourned nor postponed.")
And some voters did run into unexpected hurdles on their way to casting a ballot. In Nottingham, MacKenzie Nicholson said she was told she couldn’t bring her children inside her local polling place — despite the fact that no state policy permitted such a restriction. Nicholson said she was unable to secure childcare Tuesday, and instead had to stand outside in the cold with her 3-year-old and 7-year-old while she waited for someone to deliver her an on-site absentee ballot.
“Never in an election before has childcare been so heavily in the back of my mind, because I have no childcare right now due to COVID-19,” she said. “I lost my job. I lost child care. I lost everything.”
Nicholson reached out to the attorney general’s office to try to get ahead of the issue after seeing a local notice advising against kids at the polling place, and she thought the issue had been resolved. The attorney general’s office said it followed up with the local officials again on Tuesday to ensure they understood they should not turn away voters with children.
Many voters, particularly those who arrived early in the morning, found longer lines than they were accustomed to in past elections — though there didn’t appear to be any significant traffic jams or other severe backups.
In some heavily trafficked polling places, some voters also reported ineffective or nonexistent attempts at safe social distancing. Lauren Carroll, of Amherst, said she was uneasy with the crowding she experienced inside the gymnasium where she voted Tuesday morning — especially as a nurse who works with immunocompromised children.
“I left the polls feeling proud to have cast my vote, but also concerned for the health and safety of my community, my family, and my patients,” Carroll told NHPR. “I understand that these are unprecedented times and that the moderators have a very difficult job; however, I truly believe that the town of Amherst could and should have done better today to ensure that all citizens could safely and comfortably exercise their right to vote.”
As of about 8:30 p.m., the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office received about 275 calls through their Election Hotline. The details of all of those calls weren’t yet available as of press time, but Chong Yen said many of the issues were routine and resolved through follow-up conversations with local officials. He said he was not aware of any situations where a voter was not able to cast their ballot.
Despite the reassuring reports from polling places across the state, some questions remained unanswered as voters settled back in at home and poll workers hunkered down for the final count Tuesday night. In a year where many were new to absentee voting, how many ballots were discarded, and for what reasons? Were any ballots late to arrive on Election Day because of problems with the postal service? How significantly did the surge in absentee paperwork, and the extra steps required to process those ballots, slow down the final results? Would the enthusiasm New Hampshire voters showed for absentee ballots this year translate into any more permanent changes in state election policy? And if so, would local election offices, which were by all accounts stretched thin the last few months, be able to handle it?
The answers to those questions will take a bit longer to sort themselves out. But for now, New Hampshire went to bed Tuesday, for the most part, assured that the worst voting anxieties had not come to pass.
(NHPR's Daniela Allee, Tat Bellamy-Walker, Todd Bookman, Sarah Gibson, Jordyn Haime, Sean Hurley, Mary McIntyre, Annie Ropeik and Dan Tuohy contributed reporting.)