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N.H.'s Absentee Ballot Process Discriminates, Lawsuit Claims

Three New Hampshire voters and a coalition of groups who advocate for people with disabilities are suing the state over its COVID-19 absentee registration and voting procedure. They allege that the state is denying voters with disabilities the equal opportunity to cast a private, independent absentee ballot without extra assistance.

“New Hampshire’s absentee ballot system places Plaintiffs in an impossible bind,” the lawsuit says. “Plaintiffs must either: a) forfeit their right to vote privately and independently, or b) risk their health and the health of their loved ones by voting in person.”

(Click here to read the full complaint.)

Those bringing the suit include Concord resident Daniel Frye, Exeter resident Mary Jean Shiner and Franklin resident Jeffrey Dickinson. Frye and Shiner are blind, and Dickinson has Becker’s Muscular Dystrophy, which makes it difficult for him to “fill out and sign paper forms independently,” according to the lawsuit.

Frye says New Hampshire’s absentee voting system has long been a problem for people who have difficulty reading independently or filling out printed materials.

While Frye says New Hampshire’s in-person accessible voting system provides the kind of privacy and independence he’s looking for, he doesn’t feel safe going to the polls this fall, so he’d like to take advantage of the absentee voting option that’s available to any other eligible New Hampshire voter. (You can learn more about New Hampshire's in-person accesible voting system here.)

In order to vote absentee, Frye said, “I would need someone to assist me with first petitioning to get a ballot, and then to read me the ballot, and presumably to take down the answers I hope they would put” for the candidates of his choice.

“While in fact I can likely find someone who can do this,” he said, “it jeopardizes my ability to have access to an independent and secret ballot which is simply a basic privilege that was granted under the Help America Vote Act.”

Joining the individual voters in the suit are the National Federation of the Blind and its New Hampshire affiliate chapter, as well as Granite State Independent Living, which works with both seniors and people with disabilities.

Frye and others involved in the lawsuit say the accessibility concerns pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic, but the crisis has heightened the need to fix those issues. They also say New Hampshire had plenty of notice that this was an issue and could look to other states for a solution that’s more accessible. 

“Because of Defendants’ intransigence, Plaintiffs and other print-disabled individuals will face the unconscionable choice of either leaving their homes to vote in person — thereby facing the threat of severe illness or death—or staying home and forgoing the right to vote privately and independently (if third-party assistance is available), or the right to vote entirely (if it is not),” the suit reads.

The Secretary of State’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit as of Wednesday afternoon.

Casey McDermott is a senior news editor at New Hampshire Public Radio. Throughout her time as an NHPR reporter and editor, she has worked with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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