New Hampshire should distribute protective gear to all of its polling places, reimburse municipalities for increased absentee balloting costs and take a more proactive approach to voter education, according to a state committee tasked with evaluating how to plan for fall elections amid COVID-19.
The Secretary of State's Select Committee on 2020 Emergency Election Support outlined these and other recommendations as part of its final report, released this week. Secretary of State Bill Gardner assembled the panel in April to advise his office on how plan for the upcoming elections — and specifically, how to spend the more than $3.1 million in emergency election funding New Hampshire received as part of a federal coronavirus relief package.
Most of the committee’s recommendations revolve around encouraging the use of absentee voting, which any eligible New Hampshire voter is entitled to in this year’s elections. Some of the committee’s specific recommendations for facilitating wider absentee ballot usage include:
- Distributing the absentee ballot application form widely in locations like "the local landfill, town/city offices, police stations, grocery stores and supermarkets,” as well as “nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other congregate living facilities, and to colleges and senior high schools.”
- Covering the cost of postage for absentee ballots, and reimbursing municipalities for extra costs needed to process what is likely to be an unprecedented number of absentee voters. (The committee did not recommend covering the costs of postage associated with absentee ballot requests, if those are returned separately from the ballot itself.)
- Establishing designated dropboxes at local clerks’ offices to allow voters to return absentee ballots outside of normal business hours, as long as those boxes are secure and supervised by a local clerk.
- Leasing additional ballot counting machines for the general election, to help larger polling places in particular process the anticipated increase in absentee ballots.
- A stronger public education campaign around voting, especially absentee ballot usage, including a statewide mailing to every New Hampshire household with information about the registration process and important deadlines.
In-person voting will still be available for anyone who wants to do so, according to state officials. But the committee recommends additional precautions at polling places, including, ideally, asking all pollworkers and voters to wear masks. But Brad Cook, the committee’s chairman, said questions remain about how to handle voters who show up on Election Day without a mask.
“If they come to Hannaford without a mask, Hannaford can say go home,” said Cook, who also chairs the state's Ballot Law Commission. “But there’s no constitutional right to Hannaford.”
To balance public health with public access to the ballot box, Cook said the committee recommended that polling places keep a stockpile of extra masks to distribute to voters who aren’t wearing one when they arrive — or coming up with another way to allow that voter to cast their ballot outside of the polling place, without entering the building.
Another throughline of the committee's recommendations is a call for more proactive public awareness campaigns about New Hampshire’s voting rules. While the committee praised state officials for their work to expand absentee ballot eligibility and evaluate other temporary policy adjustments for the upcoming elections, the group also cautioned: “These steps will only be effective if New Hampshire citizens have easy access to information about these changes in procedure.”
Cook said ensuring the September primary and November general elections run smoothly will require cooperation between election officials, the media (to communicate accurate information about voting processes) and the public at large.
“If we and the other states don’t get this right, it could change the history of the world forever — and that’s not overly dramatic, that’s the truth,” Cook said. “We want people to be able to vote. We want people to know how they can vote. We want everyone in the state of New Hampshire to publicize how they can vote, and we want it to be as easy and safe — while secure — as possible.”
Gardner, in a preface attached to the committee's report, said his office is committing to provide protective gear to every polling place and to pay "at least a portion of the increased cost expected to be incurred" by cities and towns due to an influx of absentee ballots.
He also noted that his office plans to set up a dedicated hotline to answer questions about voting amid COVID-19 and "plans to expand messaging with voters related to voting with COVID-19 through the use of social media, direct mail and the news media are underway."
In addition to these and other costs directly related to voting and election administration, the Secretary of State's office says it has hired an accounting firm to help ensure it is complying with federal auditing requirements in how it distributes the new election funding.