This story has been updated with additional information.
New Hampshire's state epidemiologist is urging both pollworkers and voters to wear masks at all times inside the state's polling places if they show up for in-person balloting for this fall's elections.
Any eligible New Hampshire voter can cast an absentee ballot this fall, regardless of whether they have been diagnosed with COVID-19. But in-person voting will still be an option.
In a public health briefing with local election officials Wednesday, Dr. Benjamin Chan said he's encouraging the Secretary of State's office to adjust its expectations around what will be required to verify voter identification, so that voters would not have to lower their face mask when checking in at the polls.
"The ideal situation here is to avoid having voters pull down the mask if possible," Chan said. "If it's needed, there are ways to make it safe, but it does add a layer of logistical complexity, if you will, to the voting process."
Cloth or standard surgical masks would likely be sufficient for voters and pollworkers alike in the upcoming Sept. 8 state primary and Nov. 3 general election, Chan said, and face shields should be used as a supplement, not a substitute, for those face coverings.
He also acknowledged that masks pose special challenges to some voters, including those who are deaf or experiencing hearing loss, and advised that “clear face coverings, face shields, or Plexiglas barriers” could help in these situations.
The Secretary of State’s office previously told local pollworkers they would be outfitted with KN95 masks, but Chan advised against using those during the upcoming elections. For one, he said, they are difficult to wear for long stretches of time; many pollworkers put in shifts of 12 hours or more on Election Day. Additionally, Chan said, while the masks’ filtration systems are meant to keep contaminants out, they can allow contaminated air to escape if not applied properly.
“That actually potentially puts other people at risk around them if they are infected with COVID-19 and don’t know it,” Chan said.
But Chan said masks should not be the only precaution taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at New Hampshire polling places this fall. He said social distancing, screening for COVID-19 symptoms, aggressive hand hygiene and sanitation are also important.
Chan said local officials should be “actively screening” any pollworkers or volunteers for symptoms of COVID-19 prior to entering the polling place. He said symptom screening for voters is not necessary, but he also said anyone — voter or pollworker — with potential COVID-19 symptoms should not go inside a polling place.
Instead, Chan said election officials should offer alternatives to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to cast their ballot.
“Arrange for drive-up or in-car voting for people who refuse to wear a cloth face covering, people who might be uncomfortable entering the facility, or those who might have mild symptoms or risk factors of COVID-19,” read one of the slides in Chan’s presentation.
Chan’s presentation was hosted by the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office and billed as an opportunity for local election officials to learn more about public health considerations for the upcoming elections. But state election authorities have not issued final guidance to their local counterparts on many of the issues Chan addressed.
It’s not yet clear how Chan’s recommendations will align with the voting procedures prescribed by state election officials for the fall. Local election officials posted questions asking the state, as they have been for months, for more clarification on what rules to follow this fall.
“Has SOS allowed drive-up voting?” one local official asked. “That would be great!”
But another local official chimed in: “Do you want to sit outside in November? Drive thru might work in September (if it isn'[t] raining) but Ice. snow, freezing temps.”
Bud Fitch, the elections legal counsel for the Secretary of State’s office, said his office is finalizing an updated version of the state's Election Procedure Manual and more guidance should be issued soon.
While several hundred local officials logged on for Wednesday’s presentation, some people were unable to listen in after a series of technical mishaps that delayed the webinar by nearly half an hour. At first, Chan and other public health officials had trouble logging into the platform the Secretary of State’s office was using to host the meeting. Eventually, the Secretary of State’s office moved the meeting to a new platform, but some of the local election officials who signed up to participate were locked out by the time Chan began his remarks.
The Secretary of State’s office said they were unable to record the presentation but have asked Chan to share his slides and will try to schedule a follow-up meeting.
“I appreciate your interest and sincerely apologize for the technical problems experienced today,” Fitch wrote to those registered for the event.