The Manchester Doubletree Hilton hotel has hosted its fair share of campaign events through the years, but this past weekend it also hosted a crucial part of the voting process — serving as the absentee ballot pre-processing hub for New Hampshire’s largest city.
Manchester is one of more than 140 communities opting to pre-process absentee ballots ahead of Election Day this year, thanks to a change in state law meant to help local election officials weather a record-breaking surge in absentee votes.
No absentee votes will be placed into ballot boxes for counting until at least an hour after the polls open on Nov. 3. But these pre-processing sessions gave pollworkers a chance to screen returned absentee affidavits for any issues before the polls open.
The vast majority of absentee ballots are processed without issue, but a small number have been rejected for various reasons. New Hampshire election officials aren’t required to notify voters whose absentee ballots are rejected, though they’re strongly encouraged to — and starting the process of screening for those mistakes before the election gives officials more time to take this extra step.
The process, as with all of New Hampshire’s election procedures, played out in full view of a small handful of public observers and party-appointed challengers.
Sean Strong, of Londonderry, was there as a challenger on behalf of the New Hampshire Republican Party. Rather than challenging absentee ballots, however, he said his job was to take down the names of a small number of voters whose ballots were rejected because of mistakes so that they could be contacted to fix those problems before it's too late.
“There’s no funky business going on,” Strong said. “We’re just making sure we get the names of people that get disqualified, so maybe we can give them a call later on.”
Strong said he volunteered as a party challenger in part because of his own concerns about the integrity of the upcoming election, but seeing the process firsthand put those worries at ease. And he’d encourage others with doubts about the voting system to take time to observe it up close.
“You know, you hear the rumors about people saying that the ballots could be tampered with, or there could be, you know, extra ballots. I don’t buy it,” Strong said. “But, you know, you want to make sure, and I don’t want to sit home and do nothing.”
Elsewhere in the ballot processing arena, local high school student Ruthie Zolla was also observing the process carefully on behalf of the progressive group America Votes — though she isn’t actually old enough to cast her own vote this year.
“It's my biggest regret right now, that I'm not of age, and so I've been doing phone banking, doing all this stuff in the hopes of kind of substituting for that,” she said. “You know, it's really our civic duty. And if you're someone that's my age and you can't vote, you should be involved.”
Ruthie’s mother, Gabi Zolla, was also there to observe. She also signed up to be an official party monitor on Election Day.
“We’ve been doing this together since she was very little,” Gabi said. “So it’s our thing, and I’m glad I’m creating a citizen for the future.”
Manchester didn’t pre-process ballots in the state primary, but City Clerk Matt Normand said he was “pleasantly surprised” at how smoothly it ran this weekend. His office scouted out a few other locations, including the SNHU Arena, before settling on the downtown conference venue, which he says was offered to the city at no charge.
“We didn’t know what to expect, and this is a first for us,” Normand said as the process wound down Saturday afternoon. “Everybody’s worked well together and the public process has played out. It’s been good.”
While the totals aren’t yet final, he estimates about 27 percent of registered Manchester voters will cast an absentee ballot for November, up from just 8 percent in 2016.
While the weekend’s pre-processing session will cut down on Tuesday's workload, Normand said there’s still a lot left to do. Pollworkers will have to manually mark each absentee voter on the paper voter checklist at the polls, while that same checklist is also being used to check-in Election Day voters. A coalition of local officials across the state (including Normand) petitioned for more flexibility to make this process run smoother, but the state declined to make additional changes.
“There’s still going to be a significant challenge for [pollworkers] to balance that during the election while voters are voting,” Normand said. “We still expect another 40,000 voters, at least, to vote in-person on Election Day. So, you know, they're going to do their best to manage through that.”
Local election officials in other communities reported a similarly smooth pre-processing effort over the past few days. In Durham, Moderator Chris Regan said things went “very, very well” over the weekend and no one challenged any voter’s absentee ballot. Of about 3,800 absentee returns reviewed this weekend, Regan said 18 were rejected for common mistakes — like a missing signature or envelope.
“There’s some ballots I’ve had to reject because there was no signature on one of the affidavits or because they had neglected to put in the inner envelope, which has the affidavit,” Regan explained.
New Hampshire absentee voters still have until 5 p.m. Tuesday to drop off their ballots at their local polling place. Polls will also be open Tuesday in every community for those who prefer to vote in-person.