Any eligible New Hampshire voter who wants to cast an absentee ballot can do so this fall due to COVID-19 — and election officials across the state are preparing to process a potentially massive increase in absentee ballot requests in the months ahead.
But in-person voting will still be available to anyone who prefers that route. To that end, New Hampshire will outfit local pollworkers with masks, gowns, gloves, face shields and other protective gear for use in the September primary and November general elections.
At an information session hosted by the Secretary of State’s office Thursday, however, local officials said they need more clarification on whether they can mandate mask usage at the polls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically recommends mask usage in its latest guidance on voting amid COVID-19, and New Hampshire health officials have also encouraged people to wear masks when in public. But the state has not issued formal guidance on the issue when it comes to voting.
While many have the fall elections on their minds, Nottingham Moderator Bonnie Winona MacKinnon said she encountered some resistance on this front during her town meeting just last week — not from voters, but from potential pollworkers.
“I had a couple of people who refused to work because I said that workers had to wear a mask,” Winona MacKinnon told state officials on Thursday’s call. “It didn't make sense, to me, for the workers not to protect equally all the people that were coming into the meeting.”
In some other communities, uncertainty around Election Day mask usage is having the opposite effect: Rep. William Bordy, a Democratic legislator and a local election worker in Nashua, said it’s dampening pollworker recruitment.
"I had quite a few election workers who said, I'm willing to process absentee ballots, but I don't want to deal with people in person because I feel as though I'm being assaulted by people without masks,” Bordy told his colleagues on the call.
State officials say they’re finalizing guidance on this and other outstanding questions about New Hampshire’s COVID-19 election procedures and should be ready to share more details soon. But Bud Fitch, the elections attorney for the Secretary of State’s office, said the state would likely defer to individual cities and towns when it comes to enforcing that guidance.
“We are very mindful of the concerns you are raising, but we want to set reasonable expectations,” Fitch told local election officials. “And that is, at the end of the day, you're the moderator with the constitutional authority and responsibility to govern your meeting and election, and we are respectful of that role assigned to you.”
Recruiting enough people to check in voters, count ballots and otherwise staff New Hampshire’s elections is a perennial problem — but the pandemic has exacerbated it. Many of New Hampshire (and the nation’s) pollworkers are older in age and among those most susceptible to complications from COVID-19. Leading up to the fall elections, the state is stepping up its messaging encouraging more people — especially younger people — to get involved in the process.
Help make democracy work! Reach out to your local city or town clerk to learn more about volunteer opportunities at your polling place! Find your city or town clerk’s office here: https://t.co/a4UsGltlkX #nhpolitics pic.twitter.com/i2L6K9La1A
— NHSecretaryofState (@NHSecretary) July 2, 2020
State officials have also pointed out that New Hampshire’s election laws permit people younger than 18 to fill some Election Day positions and have encouraged communities to use this as an opportunity to encourage more civic engagement among high school students, for example.
On Thursday's call with local election officials, Fitch said some towns are also reaching out to first responders to fill those roles.
“A lot of little towns are looking to a group of volunteers that already volunteer a lot: your local E.M.S. or fire volunteers," Fitch said, "in part because they're trained in dealing with people who are sick and potentially infectious, so they already have a degree of comfort and some experience and wearing P.P.E. and dealing in that environment.”
Thursday’s meeting was part of a series of information sessions hosted by the Secretary of State’s office to brief local election officials on still-evolving plans for the upcoming elections. They’re also coming as the Legislature just finalized a series of coronavirus-related election policy changes stemming from the recommendations of a panel that convened in May and June to study the issue.
The changes in that legislation, which had bipartisan support, include establishing secure dropboxes where voters can deposit absentee ballots and adjusting the window during which pollworkers can process those ballots.
A separate package of election reforms, some of which were in the works long before the coronavirus pandemic, also advanced this week — though along more partisan lines — with Democrats backing the changes and Republicans opposing them.
Both bills are awaiting the governor's signature or veto.