Absentee Voting Drove Record Turnout in 2020, But Its Future in N.H. Is Still Up for Debate
Expanded absentee voting eligibility helped propel New Hampshire to a new voter turnout record in 2020, despite lots of uncertainty around how the pandemic would affect the election. Now, policymakers are split — largely along partisan lines — about what the future of absentee voting in New Hampshire should look like.
Where do the rules on absentee voting stand now?
The big policy change last year was to allow any eligible New Hampshire voter to cast an absentee ballot if they were concerned about COVID-19. This came at the direction of the Secretary of State and Attorney General. Before this, you could only vote absentee if you couldn’t vote in-person due to work or caregiving obligations, travel plans, disability or illness, or other state-approved excuses.
State officials recently re-affirmed that “any voter who in the voter’s judgment is being advised by medical authorities to avoid going out in public, or to self-quarantine, would qualify to vote by absentee ballot and register by absentee.” That means people can use this option in their upcoming local elections, for example. (Some of the absentee voting paperwork and other parts of the system in place to support this absentee voting expansion last fall expired in December 2020 and will require legislative changes to continue for upcoming elections.)
But this expanded absentee voting eligibility is tied to the ongoing public health emergency; lawmakers are now trying to decide how to handle absentee voting for the long haul, beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
What kind of changes are being talked about for future elections?
NHPR has identified more than 60 different bills taking aim at different parts of New Hampshire’s election processes, from relatively minor administrative changes to more sweeping efforts to restrict voting access for college students.
About a dozen proposals deal directly with absentee voting. That includes: bills that would make absentee voting more widely accessible, even after the pandemic; bills that would make absentee voting less accessible, or at least impose more requirements on those who want to vote this way; and those that would make changes to how absentee ballots are processed.
What’s the rationale for widening absentee voting access?
This isn’t a new effort, and New Hampshire Democrats have long been pushing for the state to make absentee voting an option for anyone who’s otherwise eligible to vote here. Two-thirds of states allow no-excuse absentee voting in some form outside of the public health emergency, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Those past efforts ran into opposition from Gov. Chris Sununu, who has twice vetoed legislation to expand absentee voting eligibility, and from the Secretary of State’s office, which has argued that the New Hampshire Constitution only allows absentee voting under limited circumstances and that expanding access would create administrative headaches for local election officials.
This year, Democrats have put forward three separate bills aiming to bring no-excuse absentee voting to New Hampshire. (This doesn’t mean that New Hampshire would move to a universal mail-in, absentee voting system; in-person voting would still be an option, but absentee voting would be for anyone who wanted it, too.)
At a recent hearing on one of these bills, supporters outnumbered opponents 64-5. Those eager to expand absentee eligibility pointed to the success of last fall’s elections, and the increased turnout, as evidence that this would encourage more voter participation and that New Hampshire’s election system was prepared to handle the extra paperwork that came with absentee balloting.
Derry Town Moderator Tina Guilford, reflecting on the feedback she heard from voters during the fall elections, was more blunt: “I think all this absentee is coming, whether anybody likes it or not.”
What about the proposed restrictions on absentee voting?
Just as New Hampshire Republicans have pushed for stricter voter ID and residency requirements for in-person voting, under the notion that they would add integrity to the election system, some are taking a similar approach to absentee voting. And they’re not alone: As reported by NPR, on the heels of a record-breaking year for voter turnout, Republicans in State Houses across the country “are proposing a wave of new voting laws that would effectively make it more difficult to vote in future elections,” by absentee ballot or otherwise.
Here in New Hampshire, a pair of bills would add more steps to the absentee process. One, backed by a group of House Republicans, would require additional verification from voters who request to have a ballot mailed to an address other than their primary residence listed in the voter checklist.
Another, brought by Sen. Bob Giuda and five other Republicans, would require voters to submit copies of their driver’s license or other ID when submitting an absentee ballot. In other words, according to the latest version of that bill, “failure to enclose a photocopy of valid identification shall render the absentee ballot void.” While the bill doesn’t explicitly say it’s aimed at voters requesting a ballot mailed to a different address than the one where they’re registered to vote, Giuda said the intent was to focus on that group.
That bill to require more stringent proof of ID for absentee voters ran into lots of pushback during a recent public hearing: from the Disability Rights Center, local election officials and others who said it would put a big burden on older adults, voters with disabilities and those without access to a copier. According to legislative records, 63 people signed in to oppose the bill, while just five signed in support.
Giuda said he’s open to making some changes based on the critiques aired during the hearing process, but he also doesn’t think it’s too much to ask someone who plans to be away for the election to provide extra verification of their identity.
“I don’t think that’s onerous,” Giuda said, “I think that’s responsible.”
Didn’t we hear that absentee voting worked pretty smoothly last year?
Yes. According to election officials at the state and local level, and according to lots of voters who went through the process, New Hampshire was able to manage this major shift in its election system without any major interruptions or other problems. A similar story played out nationwide: Despite repeated and baseless conspiracy theories promoted by former President Trump and his supporters, there’s no evidence that the expansion of absentee or mail-in voting access in 2020 compromised the outcome of the election.
At the same time, however, the chaos and confusion caused by those conspiracy theories about other states’ elections are being cited as arguments against expanding absentee voting access in New Hampshire.
“We don’t have to look too far with this past election that we had to see that there were issues raised in all vote-by-mail states and the absentee balloting states in terms of valid votes or not,” Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan recently told the Senate Election Law Committee. “Whether there was a real issue there or whether it was a perceived one, both caused problems with the voters’ confidence in the vote and the integrity of that vote.”
Scanlan also cautioned against expanding absentee voting in light of the fact that local election officials can no longer compare voters’ handwriting when evaluating the legitimacy of a particular absentee ballot. A federal judge struck down New Hampshire’s signature-matching law in 2018, citing inconsistent training and oversight of the practice by state election officials.
Scanlan said signature-matching was “really the one check that was available to local election officials to try to determine whether the same person who requested the absentee ballot is the one who sent it back.”
Even without the signature-matching provision, New Hampshire still asks absentee voters to sign paperwork when submitting an absentee ballot confirming that they’re a valid voter — and making it clear that they could face civil or criminal penalties if they are lying. If a voter forgets to sign this form when returning their ballot, their vote can be discarded. There have been a handful of cases over the last few elections where people violated the state’s absentee rules, but there’s no evidence that the absentee voting system, in New Hampshire or elsewhere, is rife with fraud.
Speaking of the system in place for processing absentee ballots — what kind of proposals are on the table in that area?
One rare area of election reform that has pretty solid bipartisan support, and buy-in from the Secretary of State’s office, would make it easier for election officials to start pre-processing absentee ballots before Election Day. This was allowed for the first time last fall, and local election officials have said this was crucial to helping them efficiently manage the wave of absentee ballots they received. But the law that temporarily allowed for this processing change expired at the end of 2020, so ensuring this practice can continue in future elections requires legislative action.
While this might seem like inside baseball for election policy wonks, pre-processing also has a big benefit for voters, too: Since officials could start reviewing returned absentee ballots before Election Day last year, they had more time to flag small but potentially disqualifying mistakes (like missing signatures) and give voters a chance to fix the error before it was too late.