New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner has assembled a six-person "select committee" to advise his office on how to spend the $3.2 million in emergency election funding the state has received as part of a recent federal COVID-19 relief package.
The chairman of that new panel says he does not anticipate recommending any changes to the state’s election laws, and will focus instead on finding ways to exercise greater flexibility within existing voting rules. At the same time, some local election officials say more substantial changes might be needed to accommodate significant shifts in absentee ballot usage, among other anticipated electoral effects of the pandemic.
The $2 trillion CARES Act passed last month included $400 million meant to help states “prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus for the 2020 federal election cycle.” Gardner’s office says New Hampshire’s share of that funding is already sitting in the state treasury, and the new panel will advise how best to spend it.
“These funds will help cover additional costs incurred at the local level for handling and processing absentee ballots over and above the number of those cast four years ago and protecting the health and safety of voters and poll workers,” Gardner said in a press release announcing the panel’s creation. Gardner’s office did not respond to an email seeking additional information on the new panel.
Gardner tapped state Ballot Law Commission Chairman Brad Cook to lead the panel and, according to Cook, also selected the remaining five members. Other members of the panel include: Ballot Law Commission Alternate Member Eugene Van Loan III, also a former town moderator for Bedford; Kathy Seaver, who previously served as Farmington town clerk and the president of the statewide clerks association; and Kate Hanna, who served as former Gov. John Lynch’s legal counsel and is involved in ongoing voter protection efforts for the New Hampshire Democratic Party.
One state lawmaker from each chamber and party are also involved: Rep. Barbara Griffin, a Republican from Goffstown who previously served as chair of the House Election Law Committee, and Sen. Tom Sherman, a Democrat from Rye who serves as vice chair of the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee.
News of the panel’s creation came as a surprise, however, to the legislators who currently chair the House and Senate committees responsible for election policy. Neither Rep. David Cote nor Sen. Melanie Levesque, both Democrats from Nashua who chair their respective chambers’ election law committees, said they were not aware of the panel before it was announced publicly on Monday.
Cote declined further comment on the matter. Levesque said “Senator Sherman is a wonderful representative,” and she was told “they wanted someone with medical experience.” (Sherman is a physician.)
Still, Levesque said, ideally, both current chairs of the Legislature’s election law committees would have a seat at the table. She said she was talking with the Secretary of State’s office last week about convening a meeting to talk about COVID-19 election planning, and she hopes the new panel includes plenty of opportunity for public input.
“There are so many people that are concerned about this issue, whether they be voters or moderators or supervisors of the checklist,” Levesque said. “There's a lot of uncertainty. And to pull people in and listen to their views and listen to their concerns is one way to alleviate those concerns.”
Cook, the new panel’s chairman, said the panel’s meetings will be public and could begin as early as this week. He still needs to iron out the logistics of how best to convene those meetings remotely, he said.
He anticipates that the panel will function similarly to some of the other advisory committees already established to guide the state’s response to COVID-19. While he stressed that the panel is still in its infancy, Cook said he anticipates gathering testimony from the Secretary of State’s office, the attorney general’s office and local election officials, among others. If others would want to participate, Cook said, “I'm sure we'll have an opportunity for them to come and talk.”
The new panel, as Cook sees it, is not the forum for debating the merits of changing the state’s election code to implement, for example, universal mail-in voting. Instead, he said the goal is to focus as sharply as possible on how best to distribute the CARES Act money and work within the bounds of the state’s existing election laws.
“This has nothing to do with changing the election laws. It has nothing to do with people's philosophy about what election laws ought to be,” Cook said. “But it's really to say, if we had a situation in which people were not either comfortable or able to go to the polls, how do we use the present laws to maximize participation safely in our elections?”
Among the big tasks ahead for the panel is deciding how to help local election officials deal with an anticipated surge in absentee voting and voter registration, since state election officials recently expanded absentee eligibility to accommodate concerns around COVID-19.
According to a memo issued April 10, any voter can claim “disability” for the purposes of absentee voting or absentee voter registration due to COVID-19 for any election in 2020 — regardless of whether they have symptoms, and regardless of the intensity of the pandemic.
Local election officials in communities large and small have told NHPR this move will likely place added pressure on pollworkers. Deborah Fauver, town moderator for Conway, isn’t just worried about this fall’s state and federal elections: First, she has to get through her local elections, scheduled for May 12.
“Typically in an election like this, we would have 1,200 to 1,500 voters and maybe a hundred of those would cast an absentee ballot,” Fauver said. “Right now, we already have 500 people who've requested absentee ballots, and we're hoping to have 800 or 900 people actually cast absentee ballots, for the election workers. That creates a good deal more work on Election Day.”
Local election officials are only given a limited window in which to process and count absentee ballots, Fauver said, so she hopes the new panel considers relaxing those requirements or otherwise adding more flexibility.
Beyond that, Fauver said, it’d be nice to know communities could count on the state to provide simple cleaning products and personal protective gear for those who do still show up at the polls in the fall. She’s already lined up that kind of equipment for her local election.
“I am driving to Franconia tomorrow, which is about an hour away across the mountains, to meet a truck driver that is delivering a package of something,” Fauver said. “I don’t know what kind of PPE I’m going to get, but allegedly there are some masks and some gloves and some hand sanitizer and some cleaning fluids.”