Any New Hampshire voter who has concerns about showing up to vote in-person due to COVID-19 will be able to request an absentee ballot in this year’s elections, according to a memo released Friday by the New Hampshire Secretary of State and Attorney General.
“Absentee voting is permitted in any circumstance where the voter is under medical advice – whether it is individualized advice or general advice to the public – to avoid being in places like a polling place,” the memo reads.
While two-thirds of states allow voters to use absentee ballots without providing an excuse, New Hampshire voting laws limit absentee ballot usage to those who meet certain state-approved criteria. The move to expand absentee voting comes as election administrators across the country are scrambling to adjust plans to keep voters — and pollworkers — safe.
When applying for an absentee ballot, a New Hampshire voter must indicate whether one of the following circumstances apply: they plan to be out of town on Election Day; or they can’t appear at the polls due to a religious observance, due to work or caregiving obligations, or due to illness or disability.
In this case, New Hampshire election officials determined the ongoing public health emergency surrounding COVID-19 could qualify as a “disability” under the state’s election laws. Because the general public is being advised to practice social distancing, state officials explained in the memo, that would qualify any eligible New Hampshire voter for an absentee ballot.
“Compliance with general medical advice issued to the public by health officials is sufficient, individualized advice from the voter’s personal physician is not required,” the memo reads. The state said they would be issuing more guidance in the months ahead to help local election officials deal with a potentially significant increase in absentee ballot usage.
State officials also cautioned that local election officials should not deny someone the opportunity to vote absentee over skepticism that they are truly concerned about COVID-19.
"Suspicion or evidence that a person is trying to vote by absentee ballot, when not entitled by law to do so, is never a legal ground for rejecting an absentee ballot," the memo reads.
The memo also indicates that this expanded absentee voting eligibility would apply regardless of the severity of the COVID-19 virus in the months ahead:
"It is impossible to predict the course of the COVID-19 public health crisis or how it might be affecting our state in September and November 2020 when the Primary and General Elections will be held. Nonetheless, it is important for election officials, voters, and candidates to have a clear understanding now about how public-health related concerns will be addressed. It is reasonable to anticipate that voters may feel apprehension about voting in person in the September 2020 Primary and November 2020 General Elections. Voters should not have to choose between their health and exercising their constitutional right to vote. Thus, any voter who is unable to vote in person in the September 8, 2020 Primary Election or the November 3, 2020 General Election because of illness from COVID-19 or who fears that voting in person may expose himself/herself or others to COVID-19 will be deemed to come within the definition of “disability” for purposes of obtaining an absentee ballot. Any voter may request an absentee ballot for the September 2020 Primary and November 2020 General Elections based on concerns regarding COVID-19. We anticipate providing further guidance to election officials about planning for and accommodating what could be a significant increase in absentee ballots."
Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan told NHPR last month that an expansion of absentee voting eligibility could be part of New Hampshire's solution to allow voting to proceed safely amid COVID-19. Gov. Chris Sununu, who last year vetoed a bill to expand absentee voting in New Hampshire, voiced support for expanding absentee voting eligibility approach in light of the ongoing public health crisis.
“Basically if you feel more comfortable voting absentee because of the outbreak or your inability or nervousness about just appearing in person to vote, you can vote absentee and obtain an absentee ballot," Sununu said at a press conference Thursday.
It was not immediately clear how the guidance outlined in the memo released Friday might apply to other aspects of the voter registration or absentee ballot application process. In many cases, registering to vote in New Hampshire requires someone to show up in-person to complete those applications. However, the state's election laws allow for clerks to mail or deliver absentee ballots to voters who are unable to show up in person due to a disability. NHPR asked the Secretary of State's office to clarify whether this process would apply to the new guidance amid COVID-19 and will update this story with any additional information we receive.
In the last month, many city and town offices have closed to the public, and many of New Hampshire's local clerks are doing business by appointment only to avoid spreading COVID-19.