In each major election, hundreds of New Hampshire absentee voters are disenfranchised because of simple paperwork mistakes — and often, they might not know until it’s too late to fix their error. But a new proposal, building off of changes implemented during the pandemic, could provide a solution that ensures more people can have their votes counted in elections to come.
Nearly a quarter of a million people voted absentee in New Hampshire last November, many of them doing so for the first time because of the pandemic, three times as many as the 2016 presidential election. Despite this increase, the share of absentee ballots rejected due to paperwork mistakes or other errors actually went down from past elections, according to new state data.
Part of that is likely tied to a policy change that, while intended to help local pollworkers deal with a deluge of absentee ballots due to COVID-19 concerns, could become a permanent fixture of New Hampshire elections.
This week, the New Hampshire Senate is taking up a package of election reforms that would give local election officials more time to review returned absentee ballots before the polls open. But the same proposal would also give voters more opportunity to correct problems with their absentee ballots before it’s too late for their vote to count. And in a rarity for election policy at the New Hampshire State House, this appears to have bipartisan support.
The latest version of the bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Jim Gray of Rochester, would give pollworkers even more time to start reviewing returned absentee ballots than they had in the 2020 election. Instead of waiting until the weekend before the polls open, as was the case last fall, local clerks or their designees would be able to start the process weeks or months earlier, as long as they publicly announced their plans.
No absentee ballots would be counted until Election Day, but clerks could still inspect the envelope and other paperwork returned with the ballot to make sure it’s completed correctly. This step can help to ensure that all votes are tallied more quickly, especially in elections with high numbers of absentee ballots, and that pollworkers have enough time to let voters know if there's a potential problem with their ballot.
(Read more about how this worked in the 2020 elections: N.H. Communities Get Head Start on Processing Record Number of Absentee Ballots)
Last November, about 73 percent of polling places took advantage of this option to start processing absentee ballots early, according to the Secretary of State’s office. The communities that chose not to go this route, for the most part, were smaller and reported fewer rejected ballots.
The new bill would also require local election officials to “attempt to contact” a voter if their absentee ballot affidavit contains a mistake, “such as having a missing signature or an incorrect name.” Without that contact, a voter might not know their ballot is at risk of not being counted and wouldn’t have an opportunity to correct the issue before the polls close.
Right now, New Hampshire doesn’t require pollworkers to notify voters about mistakes on their returned absentee paperwork — though many pollworkers did take this step in 2020, thanks to the additional processing time.
Gray, who also served as a moderator for more than 20 years in Rochester, said this change “allows us to make sure that we do not disenfranchise voters that simply, due to one reason or another, have not completed the process properly.”
Overall, according to the Secretary of State’s office, less than one percent of absentee ballots returned for the 2020 general election were flagged for rejection, down from more than 2 percent in the previous four federal elections.
Not all of the rejections reported this year resulted in disenfranchisement: Nearly half the time, according to state data, voters were still able to cast a valid vote even after their ballots were flagged for rejection, either by voting in-person or fixing other issues with their absentee paperwork.
Still, the changes proposed in Gray’s bill might have helped to prevent hundreds more New Hampshire voters from losing their vote in the 2020 general election. As in past years, missing or incomplete absentee paperwork was one of the most common reasons ballots were rejected.
In New Hampshire, absentee ballots need to be returned inside an official envelope. That envelope has an affidavit printed on the outside, and voters are supposed to sign that form to attest that they’re following voting laws to the best of their knowledge.
Last year, nearly 600 New Hampshire ballots were tossed out because voters skipped over these steps. But about 280 other people were still able to vote even after their ballots were flagged for these mistakes, nearly all of them in communities that chose to pre-process ballots before Election Day.
In fact, hundreds of voters whose ballots were originally flagged for rejection still participated in the 2020 election, according to records provided by the New Hampshire Secretary of State. This was the case for about 40 percent of the “rejections” reported in communities that started processing ballots early, and for about 36 percent of those reported in communities that didn’t pre-process.
While providing voters with the chance to fix their ballots could correct lots of the errors usually seen in New Hampshire, it wouldn’t solve all of those problems. More than 300 people lost their vote last November because their absentee ballots arrived at their polling place too late. (In New Hampshire the deadline for mailed absentee ballots is 5 p.m. on Election Day.)
Some ballots were also rejected because people chose to vote in-person after returning an absentee ballot, or the voter who sent in the ballot died before the election. There are also instances where a voter’s ballot is “rejected” because they already returned another absentee ballot.
According to the Secretary of State’s office, this can happen if the voter thinks their absentee ballot got lost in the mail and requests a new one, but both ballots end up arriving at their local clerk before the election.
“These circumstances do not suggest voter misconduct,” Assistant Secretary of State Bud Fitch wrote in a recent memo to local election officials summarizing the rejection data from November 2020.