What Will Elections Look Like This Year? | New Hampshire Public Radio

What Will Elections Look Like This Year?

Aug 31, 2020

With New Hampshire’s state primary a week away, we look at what we might learn from other states that have already been through a state election with NPR's Miles Parks. We look at what health and safety protocols will be in place at the polls. What questions do you have about election procedures for voting safely during a pandemic, or about the option to mail in an absentee ballot? And once the voting’s over, how long it might take to get the results? 

Airdate: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020


GUESTS:

  • Nicholas Chong Yen - Assistant Attorney General, N.H. Department of Justice Election Law Unit.
  • Lynn Christensen - Merrimack N.H. Town Moderator.
  • Betsy McClain - Director of Administrative Services and Town Clerk for the town of Hanover N.H..
  • Casey McDermott - NHPR Reporter.
  • Miles Parks -  reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.

The Attorney General's Office will be operating its Election Day hotline from 6:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m.  on Sept. 8. They encourage voters and election officials with concerns or questions to call 1-866-868-3703 (1-866-VOTER03). In the event a caller receives voicemail, the caller should leave a message. Attorneys in the office will address each message received. Inquiries and complaints may also be submitted via email at electionlaw@doj.nh.gov.

Whether you plan to cast an absentee ballot or plan to head to your local polling place on Election Day, or even if you haven’t yet finalized your voting plan and need more information to help make up your mind, NHPR can help with the NHPR COVID-19 Voting Guide. 

 

NPR's Miles Parks reported on Thursday that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy promised some of the nation's top election officials that mailed ballots would be the U.S. Postal Service's top priority this fall. 

Transcript

This transcript is machine-generated and contains errors.

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy and this is The Exchange. Our state's primary election day is a week from today with an unprecedented number of absentee ballots expected this year due to the pandemic. Today on The Exchange, we talk about what elections might look like this year and answer your questions. We begin the hour with Miles Parks. He covers voting and elections for NPR. And in a few minutes, we'll talk with several New Hampshire guests.

Laura Knoy:
And Miles, welcome to you. And let's jump right into it. Back at the beginning of this year, Miles, what were the main issues you were thinking you'd be covering in terms of elections, administration? And how has your focus changed?

Miles Parks:
Yeah, it's been kind of amazing, honestly, in terms of, I feel like this year has been more than any election in recent memory, kind of a changing of narratives every few months. You know, a year ago especially, it's kind of hard to remember. But after the 2016 presidential election, everyone was focused on cybersecurity as a concept. You know, we were worried about foreign election interference and how secure our elections were from foreign adversaries. But honestly, in the last six months, I don't know about you, I've barely heard anything about that, both from politicians and from election officials. You know, they kind of sticking it in at the very end. We're still thinking about it. It's not completely gone away. But in general, this is this is an election that's really going to be focused around how does the mail work and this vote by mail work for people.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. It's so interesting, Miles. You know, you're right, we were focused on cybersecurity and all this, you know, complicated stuff around that. Now we're just talking about will the mail get there in time?

Miles Parks:
Yeah, exactly. And it's not like the cybersecurity question has gone away, actually. So, you know, with all of this changing of election gears and stuff, it actually increases some risk of the cybersecurity problem as well. It's just that that's kind of not the main focus. Now we have to be worried about are people going to be getting their ballots on time and are those ballots are going to be able to get back to the election officials on time.

Laura Knoy:
What are the expectations, naturally, Miles, about how many people, what percentage of voters just roughly will use absentee ballots?

Miles Parks:
The estimates have been changing a lot in the last few months. The one I kind of point to that experts use at the low end is between 45 and 50 percent. Half of all voters will probably have their ballots touch the mail in some form. But the higher estimates, you know, experts still say it's possible, especially if we see a second worsening of the pandemic in the fall, that that number could creep up to 60 or 70 percent of all ballots cast. But I think 50 percent is kind of a safe estimate.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. I'm picturing elections officials sitting around until, you know, 3:00 in the morning ripping open envelopes, Miles. That's a huge number.

Miles Parks:
Yeah, I mean, 3:00 in the morning. But also, you know, it could be it could be days later, you know. I mean, I think it's important to say that doesn't necessarily mean there's anything wrong with the election. Right, I mean, the process of processing absentee ballots takes so long because election officials are doing the things that people want them to do, like looking out for fraud, checking signatures to make sure that the person who is voting is actually a person who they say they are. So it's a lot of good stuff there that takes the time, but it does take a lot longer to process absentee or mail ballots.

Laura Knoy:
Interesting. So what have we seen so far, Miles, in other states that have already held their primaries? As I said, New Hampshire's is a week from today,

Miles Parks:
Right. I mean, we've seen a kind of a plethora of different experiences we saw in New York what kind of can go wrong when you have a vote by mail system that hasn't had much experience and you're ramping up really quickly. We saw more than 20 percent of ballots in the New York City primary get rejected. A lot of those were rejected for getting there late, which some people say had to do with the fact that the postal service in New York City just didn't have that much experience dealing with absentee ballot mail. Also, people maybe were turning in their ballots late, not knowing that they had to be there by a certain date. But we also saw in other states things go pretty well. I mean, Kentucky was a state people were watching, expecting a lot of issues to come out of it. But in reality, there was a lot of bipartisanship. The secretary of state is a different party than the governor, and yet they were able to agree on a system that included no-excuse absentee mail, but also included some really good creative solutions to the in-person voting problem. We saw them use a football stadium as a precinct place, which obviously, you know, when you think about the need for social distancing is a really interesting idea. And now a lot of other states are kind of taking into the general election and potentially thinking about using arenas. And then lastly, we saw Wisconsin, which, you know, had you could argue the most problems of any primary because it happened so quickly in the spring when the pandemic was just kind of getting under way. The biggest takeaway from Wisconsin was that people still voted despite all of the problems they saw. We still saw really high turnout there. So I think that's a fair assumption in November, that even if there's problems, even if there's some kind of difficulties, that we're probably going to see so much voter excitement that turnout expected to be really high.

Laura Knoy:
What sort of messaging have you heard, Miles, from secretaries of state, either from the national organization that represents all of them or just individual secretaries of state whose sort of work in this arena stands out?

Miles Parks:
Yeah, it's interesting. I had a long conversation the other day with the secretary of state of New Mexico, who's a Democrat, and she was talking about the toxic political rhetoric around voting, which I thought was a good way to put it. She's you know, these election administrators are in the business of trying to get as many people to vote as possible. That's what makes them look good, is a high turnout rate and a low fraud rate. So, you know, she's saying basically that the things she's most worried about this election year has nothing to do really with the actual administration of the elections. But actually the conversations around the administration of the elections, specifically, we were talking about the postal service and the politicalization of the Postal Service over the last month has been really damaging for these election administrators who are going to be relying on the mail and needing voters to have confidence in the mail to return their ballots that way. And she's just really worried about the kind of tone of the conversation, this kind of apocalyptic tone around this election when what she's seeing on the ground is election administrators and postal service workers, people all along the process are working really hard to make this work. But the tone of the conversation is that this is going to be a disaster. And I think what people voters are kind of looking for a disaster heading into election, that any small hiccup or issue can really kind of make that a reality, even if it's not the reality nationwide.

Laura Knoy:
We hear on The Exchange did ask our secretary of state's office to join us today. We did not hear back from them. We were really hoping to have them on for these kinds of conversations before the election to give our listeners the information that they're seeking, as you said, Miles. Last question for you, please. As you mentioned, lots of headlines around the Postal Service, whether disruptions will hurt the accuracy of the count. The head of the Postal Service said last week his agency would treat the ballots like, quote, gold. What is the latest there, Miles? There is a lot going on.

Miles Parks:
Yeah, I think the latest is that Democrats overall are still really worried about the state of the Postal Service. We're still hearing reports about some delays nationwide and some of that, you know, it could be still coming from some of the changes that the postmaster general has put into place. And some of them immediately could still be coming from the pandemic. The fact that, you know, people are having to deliver mail all over the country with the pandemic taking hold. But I think it's important and this is something that I've heard from democratic election officials as well as from the USPS, is that important to remember that the Postal Service handles so much more mail than there ever could be ballots that it's not really a capacity problem. And I think that's something that voters it's really important for voters to understand that even if 200 million people vote by mail, which there's no way that the number could actually reach that high. But even if that was to happen, it would still represent like a very small percentage of the actual mail volume nationwide that the USPS handles. And so when you think about it that way, I think it kind of takes away a little bit of that, like I mentioned, the apocalyptic tone. There are still kind of questions about training, and about the mail sorting machines in different places across the country, that still need to be answered. But the overall concept of the Postal Service being able to handle election mail I don't think is in question even when you talk to secretary of state of Democratic states who would be inclined to question the postmaster general, even they are talking to me with confidence about the mail system.

Laura Knoy:
All right. Well, lots for you to work on this fall, Miles. We really appreciate you taking time for us today. Thank you.

Miles Parks:
Thank you. Hope to join you again soon before November.

Laura Knoy:
That's Miles Parks, he covers voting and elections for NPR. Again today, on The Exchange we're looking at voting issues this fall with the primary a week from today. Our New Hampshire guests are Casey McDermott, NHPR's reporter who tracks elections issues. Also, Nicholas Chong YEn. He's assistant attorney general in the election law unit. A big welcome to both of you. And Casey, what are you looking at right now? Big picture and small details.

Casey McDermott:
So there's a lot to pay attention to this year because the elections are going to look kind of different than they have in New Hampshire in recent election cycles for sure. So the first thing, as Miles was talking about is an increase in absentee ballot usage. I don't have fully up to date numbers as of this morning, but as of the last week or so, there were reports from other local media outlets that New Hampshire voters had requested roughly 80,000 absentee ballots statewide. So that would put us way ahead of what we normally see for a state primary election, like the one that we're going to have in a week. So that means not only a lot more voters who are having to deal with things like mailing in those ballots, filling them out correctly, things like that. That also means, and I'm sure our other guests will have a lot to say about this, more work for the poll workers who have to process those and make sure that they're counted appropriately. So it's a big undertaking to make that shift. The other things to keep an eye on are how our polling place is actually going to operate for those who do choose to show up and vote in person, because that's still going to be an option for anyone who who's eligible and who chooses to exercise that alternative to absentee voting.

Casey McDermott:
So we've seen guidance come down in the last few weeks around, for example, mask rules in polling places, things like drop boxes or drop offs for absentee ballots. If someone wants to to take advantage of that option and if that's something that's available in their community. And the big thing that I think is going to be worth paying attention to is, while there's rules and policies that are set at the state level, in New Hampshire elections really are run on a local level. So it's up to the local poll workers to really determine individual practices and approaches. That may mean that voters in one community might have a slightly different process than those in another community. So that's another thing that's really important for people to keep in mind. And why, if you have questions, your local poll workers are really probably the best sources of clear answers for for people out there.

Laura Knoy:
And later on, we'll have two local elections officials with us. But Nick going to you, what is the attorney general's office role in protecting the right to vote in the middle of a pandemic?

Nicholas Chong Yen:
Good morning, Laura. The attorney general's office is responsible for the enforcement of election laws, as well as providing counsel to the secretary of state for the administration of elections in New Hampshire. Part of that this year, more than ever, is continuing our tradition of working with election officials and making sure that we coordinate and cooperate with them in order to develop the solutions to address the unique challenges that are being faced at the polls as a result of the COVID virus. So in that regard, we have been working diligently since April in publishing guidance materials and information. This includes, we had a publication for the newest edition of the election procedure manual that came out. We've been releasing guidance about the meaning of disability in the context of absentee voting. There have been briefings hosted with our state epidemiologist, Dr. Chan, in addition to supplemental briefings that have been occurring throughout the last several weeks with our secretary of state's office and election officials being able to keep that line of communication open. So really, it's a heavily collaborative effort between the state agencies as well as our election officials and making sure that our elections continue to be run smoothly and particularly this year, done so in a safe way.

Laura Knoy:
You mentioned voters with disabilities, Nick. What particulars are there surrounding the rights of voters with disabilities this year, especially since, as Casey told us, a lot of people are going to be voting absentee.

Nicholas Chong Yen:
So our goal for this year, particularly with the COVID virus introducing a lot of unique challenges is making sure that voters have every opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to vote. And in that respect, early in April, the secretary of state and attorney general's office published guidance indicating that with respect to absentee voting, the term disability included concern for covid-19. That was later adopted by the legislature through what has been known as HB1266. That came into effect toward the middle of July 2020. And they made some temporary modifications to absentee voting and absentee voter registration based on covid-19. And so really this meaning of disability in the context of absentee voting would encompass a voter that is concerned about covid-19. And so we really want to provide voters with every opportunity to be able to exercise their right to vote.

Laura Knoy:
Casey, just recently there were some changes surrounding voters who have disabilities that make it hard for them to read or write or handle pages and how they'll fill out that absentee ballot. What's going on there, Casey?

Casey McDermott:
So there's that's an important distinction to make. As as Nick mentioned, the state did make accommodations earlier this year to expand the kind of definition of disability for the purposes of election law to cover concerns about covid-19.

Casey McDermott:
However, in expanding that access to absentee voting, that still presented some barriers for voters for whom filling out a printed form may be difficult for a variety of reasons, including for voters who are blind or who have vision loss or otherwise just have challenges dealing with printed materials. And this has been a longstanding issue with the state's absentee voting process. So the state actually is facing an ongoing lawsuit from a coalition of disability rights advocates who say that the previous system made it really difficult for voters to fully exercise their right to vote privately and independently because the previous system would require those voters to have someone help them fill out their ballot, which means that it would no longer be private or independent.

Casey McDermott:
So that's been playing out throughout the summer. And actually, just recently, within the last few days, the state agreed to implement a new process that's in place for the primary. So just in this election that's coming up in the next week, where voters will now have the opportunity if they have a disability, that makes it difficult for them to deal with printed materials to request a special absentee ballot online.

Casey McDermott:
The paperwork is on the secretary of state's website. Every election official in the state should have guidance from the secretary of state at this point about how to help a voter through that process to request the ballot. But what what will happen is basically the voter can fill out this application for an accessible electronic absentee ballot. That ballot will be sent to them electronically. They can fill it out on their computer with the help of assistive technology, so that they can do it on their own and then they will have to print that out and either deliver it or mail it back to their local clerks. So that's all to say that there is now a process in place that will be, at the very least, kind of a temporary step toward allowing more voters to really exercise that private and independent right to vote. But the court case that prompted that change is still ongoing.

Laura Knoy:
All right. There are lots of questions this year around absentee balloting. And we will talk about that after a short break. We're also going to have two local elections officials joining us, what kinds of questions they are getting from their town residents. This is The Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange I'm Laura Knoy. Today, we're talking about elections, issues and listeners. For more information, check out NPR's guide on how to vote during the pandemic. That's at NHPR.org. What questions do you have about voting next week, absentee or in person? And then, of course, for the big election in November. Joining us now are Lynn Christensen. She's Merrimack Town moderator, and Betsy McLain, director of administrative services and town clerk in Hanover. Welcome to both of you. And we just heard from our other guests about the expected large number of absentee ballots this year. Lynn, you first, please. How is that changing the work that you do in Merrimack?

Lynn Christensen:
It actually doesn't change the work that I do prior to the elections, but it is a huge burden on the town clerks, because they're the ones that are responsible for accepting the absentee ballot requests and getting the ballots mailed back out to the public. In Merrimack, for instance, two years ago with this election, we had about a hundred absentee ballots cast. This year, at least a week ago, I'm not tracking it on a daily basis, but a week ago, the town clerk had received. Two thousand absentee ballot requests and she was getting them to the tune of about 125 a day.

Laura Knoy:
Oh my gosh. So usually you have 100 in an election. Now you're getting requests for 125 a day. That's amazing, Lynn.

Lynn Christensen:
It is. And it was similar for our town meeting, which got postponed until June. Last year I had, I think, 30 or 40 absentee ballots out of 3500 that were cast. This year I had about 1800 absentee ballots.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, my gosh. Well, Betsy, you're town clerk, as I said, in Hanover. So what does this mean for you?

Betsy McLain:
Our office has been full bore, as Lynn mentioned, we are seeing an incredible volume of absentee ballots this year. We have over 2400 requests and folks should remember the form that the state provided allows folks to request not only the primary ballot, but also the general election ballot. So we're doing, we're inputting records from both of those elections as these forms come in. So we've got an incredible amount of volume and we're working around the clock, frankly.

Laura Knoy:
Give us a sense of that volume. Betsy, you don't have to give us exact numbers, but Lynn's numbers were pretty striking.

Betsy McLain:
Sure. Well, just sort of as context. Usually our state primary elections have a total of around 1500 voters. We have received already 1200 absentee ballots back and we have another 1200 out there that we're expecting to roll in over the next week or so. So just participation in the primary is already off the charts. And that's all obviously absentee voting that we know about so far.

Laura Knoy:
Well, all of you, Lynn, Betsy, Nick, Casey, let's go to our listeners. And Lisa is calling in from Hanover where where you are, Betsy. Go ahead, Lisa. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
Hi. Good morning. I'm ready to mail my ballot. It's filled out. And there is one envelope that you put inside of a second. That inner envelope in a kind of middle horizontal line has the space for signature, print name. So I put in my signature. I printed my name. Right next to it, on that same horizontal line is a second ballot. That's a signature and print name. And I want to know why that's there. Do I sign it twice? Why would, no one else should be signing that if, actually I were helping someone who is blinded, there's a space below it. So I wish I knew for sure that I'm doing the right thing by just signing in one box.

Laura Knoy:
Right. Thank you for calling, Lisa, and Betsy. Go ahead. People don't want to mess up on this because then their vote doesn't count.

Betsy McLain:
Understand. And what Lisa's talking about is the affidavit envelope. There are two sides split by that vertical line that she mentioned. And ideally, because New Hampshire is not an excuse free absentee voting state, one must provide a reason they are voting absentee. And the reasons historically have been that one is temporarily absent. So one side of that affidavit envelope has to do with the fact that you're swearing that you're temporarily absent from the town. The other side of the affidavit envelope has to do with you're disabled and can't make it to the polls or as has been discussed in this session today, that's been expanded to include concern for the covid-19 virus. What we have been telling folks who are calling frantically saying I sign both sides, is my vote to be counted? No, it's just critical that you sign that affidavit envelope. Your vote will not be discounted. If you sign the wrong side of the affidavit, it will be discounted if there is no signature.

Laura Knoy:
So just sign somewhere basically, is that what you're saying, Betsy?

Betsy McLain:
That's what I'm saying. Again, in the perfect world, it would line up for the reason that you requested an absentee ballot on your request form.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Daniel in Concord emails to say he requested a primary ballot four weeks ago, but has not yet received it.

Laura Knoy:
What should he do now that we're only a week away? Daniel, thank you so much. And Lynn, he's in Concord. You're in Merrimack. But is it too late for for Daniel?

Lynn Christensen:
No, it's not too late. He can request one up until the day before the election, but he should call his town clerk and check on the request. Four weeks sounds like too long. Typically, even with the volume that the town clerks are dealing with, our ballots are going out within a couple of days and the post office hasn't had any trouble delivering them and getting them back to us. There there's also a link on the secretary of state's website that you can go on under elections and click and track your absentee ballot so that you can see when the town clerk has received it, when they've sent it out and when they've received the ballot back again.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that's interesting. Just like when you make a purchase online, then they sort of track it for you sometimes, you know, here's your purchase. It's been shipped out. And that's really interesting. All right. Another question that we've gotten from listeners has to do with people who request absentee ballots. I'm going to throw this to you first, Betsy. They've requested absentee ballots, but then they hear about concerns with the postal office. They have concerns like Daniel, who emailed us and they say, forget it, I'm just going to the polls. Is it too late, Betsy? If you've requested absentee, do you have to absolutely follow through with that plan or can you show up at the polls?

Betsy McLain:
You can absolutely show up at the polls, of course. In our town, we've been encouraging absentee voting for those that are open to that concept simply because we don't want to host a large community gathering in the throes of a pandemic. But certainly if people have reservations, they've already gotten their absentee ballot, they might have sent it in. They might have it still in their hand. They can appear at the polling place. The trick is if their absentee ballot, so the ballot clerks will know by highlighting of their name on the checklist that they have requested an absentee ballot. We have to confirm that that absentee ballot has not yet been processed. If it's not yet been processed, we will pull it. And absolutely we want to encourage the folks that where that's important to them to vote in person.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, interesting. OK, and speaking of some of the confusion around absentee ballots and the Postal Service, Nick, I want to ask you about a very recent development concerning the attorney general's office investigating incorrect absentee ballot information sent out by the state Republican Party. Now, this is under investigation, Nick, so you may not be able to tell us everything, but what can you tell us about this?

Nicholas Chong Yen:
Absolutely, Laura. So what we've been looking at is essentially two separate mailers, and I think it's easier for the listeners if I just go through each one individually. The first mailer that we had looked at and are continuing to investigate was a absentee voter registration postcard. So essentially, if a voter completed this and sent it in, the issue on this postcard was it did not contain the correct town and city as well as zip code. Everything was being sent to Durham, New Hampshire. After we received a report about this, we immediately contacted the Durham Town clerk, as well as the Durham postmaster, to make arrangements to pick up these postcards that had been completed and received by the Durham postmaster so that the attorney general's office could redirect them to the correct town or city clerk. To date, we have approximately 2500 of these completed absentee voter registration postcards that we have redirected to the correct town or city clerks. Those have been approximately 195 or just over 195 towns or cities. And we are continuing to work diligently to make sure that all of these completed postcards are sent to the correct locations. Of course, if voters have any questions and they know that they've completed this postcard and they have any concerns about where their absentee voter registration package is, they can certainly contact their respective town or city clerk. We also have an election hotline that they can contact as well. I can provide more information later. But the second mailer is actually an absentee ballot request application form. And that mailer, the issue there is, as I mentioned, HB1266 that had been brought into effect by the legislature in July had created a form that would allow a voter to request both the primary election and general election ballot for this year. And the application that had been sent out by the Republican State Committee did not comply with that law. And so what we've been doing is working to make sure that those individuals that have completed that application form will be notified about the best way to receive their primary absentee ballot if they've requested one. And so if those voters are out there and listening, they can certainly contact their town or city clerk or they can contact our election hotline and we can help them navigate that process. We also understand that the Republican State Committee will be conducting its own comprehensive efforts to reach out to voters that have completed this absentee ballot request application form and making sure that they, too, also have the correct information.

Laura Knoy:
So if you're a Republican voter, Nick, who wanted to vote absentee in the primary a week from now, and there's some, you know, contested primaries in some big races, so I can imagine people would want to participate. Are they, Is their vote just gone if they use some of these faulty documents?

Nicholas Chong Yen:
Laura, I think the important clarification piece is it was a request for an absentee ballot. It wasn't the ballot itself. So, the voter can still have the opportunity, like Betsy said, up until the day before Election Day, to request an absentee ballot from their town or city clerk. But in addition to that, with a lot of the expanded operations that we've been conducting to address COVID on Election Day, that voter, if they're feeling concerned about timing or being able to send it through the mail, can appear at the polling place and utilize something called accessible voting on Election Day, which existed under our law prior to this whole public health crisis. And it is a process that they can use to show up at the polling place and perhaps not go inside if they don't feel comfortable, but instead utilize the absentee ballot voting process on Election Day at the polls in order to cast their ballot. And so we've posted guidance regarding that. And we are happy to answer questions before and on Election Day will be operating our Election Day hotline like we normally do. And it will be available to voters both before and during elections so we can help them navigate any sort of concerns they may have.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, interesting. OK, so if you want to vote absentee, but you're not sure about it getting there on time and so forth, you can hand in that absentee ballot on Election Day without going to the polls. I mean, it's at the polls, but you don't have to get out and go into the building. That's right.

Nicholas Chong Yen:
Yes. And you will be at the polling location and you are going to be dropping off your absentee ballot. But voters should bear in mind that if they're going to complete their absentee ballot before Election Day and then go to the polling location to drop it off, that there is a law that would impose a 5:00 p.m. cutoff time. But not to worry, even if you are late to the polls and are after that 5:00 p.m. cutoff time, the voter is eligible to either go into the polling place if they choose to, to vote in person or utilize that process I mentioned before, which is the accessible voting process on Election Day.

Laura Knoy:
Let's take another call. This is Lauren in Hillsborough. Hi, Lauren. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
Hi. Thank you for taking my call. Sure. My question kind of twofold, actually. OK, so it's kind of twofold, it's about nursing homes, people that are in nursing homes still have the right to vote. Do they have to submit for an absentee ballot in the town that their nursing home is, say their long-term care? Say they've moved into a nursing home that's not in the same town that they used to live in. Are there people in the nursing homes that are helping patients or residents fill out the forms? And what if they can't do it, like with somebody by paper or they can't really do it on the computer either? They don't all have access to a computer. I heard earlier that there was that way of doing it for those that are disabled, on the computer. But what if they can't do either one of those things? Are there people in the nursing homes that are helping to assist in this manner so that they get counted as well?

Laura Knoy:
Oh, Lauren, I'm so glad you called. This is really important. And Lynn, I'm going to go to you first. But Casey, you might want to jump in on this as well. What about nursing home residents, both in terms of the logistics of just helping them with the ballot, Lynn, but also in those instances where maybe somebody moved to a facility that is not in their original hometown. So go ahead, Lynn, please.

Lynn Christensen:
Actually, this is probably a better question for Betsy, because she's the one that's going to be taking the the request for these ballots and there is a way of doing it.

Laura Knoy:
Ok, Betsy, go ahead.

Betsy McLain:
Ok, great. Yeah, we have several nursing homes and retirement communities in Hanover, and we are very fortunate that the administrators that work in all of them are pretty proactive and reach out to our office. And so we're lucky that the boots on the ground in the nursing home are working with our residents to get their absentee ballot requests in. And they do collect those usually at the desk, and then they're sending those over electronically. And as I think it's been mentioned, those folks that are not able to fill out their forms, a lot of times the nursing home folks will act as their agent to provide assistance to them. And then, you know, and that's and they will countersign the form. Also, the nursing home administrators have a special privilege in that they get to be, act as a delivery agent so they can actually bring the ballots of their residents to the town hall as opposed to putting them in the mail. So, again, I we have a really great relationship with our our elder care facilities. And it can always be more in terms of, you know, going door to door. But the nursing home administrators generally in our community have really stepped up and are doing a great job.

Laura Knoy:
All right. Well, Michael, emails can your guests explain what the cutoff date for absentee ballot mailing is and what is the process to prevent double voting? For example, Michael says, What happens if I mail in a ballot the day of the election and still vote in person? Which vote is invalidated and how? Wow. Michael, good question. And Nick, I'm going to throw that one to you.

Nicholas Chong Yen:
Absolutely. So why don't we take this in two parts? So let's talk about the double voting piece first. Betsy had done an incredible job of explaining the absentee ballot process on Election Day, and a voter can still go in person to vote. But one of the things that the officials on the ground at the polls will check is to see if that individual's absentee ballot has already been processed. That meaning that has the absentee ballot been opened and then put through the ballot box or counting machine, because at that point, the officials will have a notation indicating that the individual has absentee voted and that they will be unable to vote in person after that processing has occurred. So that that is how we are going to navigate that. The double voting piece is an ongoing, it is a feature of our enforcement authority as the attorney general's office, and we work diligently with our election officials to make sure that any concerns that come up are immediately addressed. And we don't have any sort of issue with respect to voter fraud in New Hampshire. So we are available to answer any other questions that voters might have on Election Day. And like I said, we will be operating our Election Day hotline as well if voters are concerned about wanting to show up in person or the status of their absentee ballot or helping them navigate that process.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and one last question for you, Nick. And it comes from Aubrey in Portsmouth. I voted absentee for the last presidential election in 2016. Afterwards, I heard that lots of absentee ballots had been disqualified because the signature did not match the absentee ballot application. Aubrey says, my signature is essentially a scribble that never looks exactly the same twice. So I fear my vote didn't count then and may not count again if I vote absentee. Can you please address this concern and go ahead, Nick, please?

Nicholas Chong Yen:
Absolutely. So there is actually a case that was decided in I believe 2018 where the federal U.S. District Court had struck down the law that was contemplating signature comparison with respect to absentee ballots. So signature comparisons don't occur in your ballot, your absentee ballot won't be rejected on that basis. So if you have any questions about that, again, please feel free to call us. And we can certainly work through that. But there won't be a rejection on the basis of a signature comparison.

Laura Knoy:
All right. And you have mentioned several times, Nick, your hotline for voters. Could you give that out on the air, please? And we will also put it on our website in case people don't catch it.

Nicholas Chong Yen:
Absolutely. So, like I said, the hotline will be available on and before Election Day.The number is 1-866-868-3703. You can also email us at election law at DOJ dot NH dot gov. And we also will be releasing a press release later today that contains that information. So stay tuned.

Laura Knoy:
All right. Well, and we'll let you go, Nick, but thank you very much for joining us. We'll put that information on the website. Thank you for being with us today. That's Nicholas Chong Yen, assistant attorney general in the Election Law Unit. So coming up, more of your questions, including many that came into our survey before the show. We will try to answer as many as possible.. This is The Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. We're talking about the mechanics of voting this year and listeners, for more information, check out NHPR's guide on how to vote during the pandemic. It's at NHPR.org. And Casey, Betsy and Lynn, so many questions coming in this hour on absentee voting. And Casey, I'd like to just pull back for a moment. Why is the absentee process so confusing for folks? It seems like it should be easy, but it seems like people have a lot of questions.

Casey McDermott:
Well, I mean, you would that would probably be a better question for our lawmakers and policy officials, to be honest, because they're the one that are creating the rules for it.

Casey McDermott:
But that's certainly not a, if people are confused by it, they are not alone. There are a lot of paperwork. There's a lot of different kind of places to sign to check off things like that. And Miles and his colleagues at NPR have actually looked at absentee votes that have been rejected or not counted. And a lot of times that actually is because of a paperwork mistake. So that's all the more reason to make sure if you're listening right now, reach out to your local election office, call your local clerk, reach out to an election official who can help you make sure that you're doing everything correctly and make sure that your vote is counted properly. And, of course, we'll try to make sure that we provide all of the resources to be able to do that on NHPR as well. I did want to get back to just one thing that we were talking about before the break. I think one of the callers had a question about how early they needed to mail their absentee ballot back. And there's not a hard deadline on that. But I should note that the state's guidance,so the state election procedure manual, I'm looking at it right now, it says to increase the likelihood that the absentee ballot arrives on time and assist with an expected high volume of absentee ballots, we - that's the state - recommend mailing it at least two weeks before the election. So that's a pretty wide timeframe that the state is encouraging people to allow for in order to make sure that their ballot arrives by mail by that 5:00 p.m. deadline on Election Day. And it's really important to note for people that some other states will allow a ballot to be counted if it's postmarked by Election Day. New Hampshire is not one of them. Your ballot has to arrive by 5:00 p.m. on Election Day if it's coming in the mail.

Casey McDermott:
If you are going to if you are going to be mailing it, just please make sure that you're aware of those deadlines and those recommendations. And again, as everyone has been stressing this hour, the mail is not the only option that you have. You can deliver your ballot in person. You can ask a family member or another state-approved delivery agent to to deliver your ballot for you. We have more information on that on NHPR's voting guide. And the state also has information in their guidance as well.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, that's good. That was good to hear from Nick that, you know, if you think it's not going to get there in time with the mail, you can bring it in on Election Day. And you don't actually have to go into the polling place. You can you can hand it in that way. Let's go back to our listeners. Knox is calling in who is in Costa Rica, but Knox is a New Hampshire resident. So go ahead, Knox, and welcome to The Exchange.

Caller:
Hi, good morning, thank you. Here's the situation, we are New Hampshire residents, but we're overseas and we're [inaudible] we have to reach it by mail. But here's the problem. Because of the pandemic, we are one of 91 nations that have been no mail service. So it says, what do we do? There was no guidance coming from the Department of State [inaudible]. The safest place we can go, the embassy, we can put it through a diplomatic pouch and depending on [inaudible]. But that is our only option. I guess my question is, why have we been sort of left out of the equation on how to proceed in the pandemic?

Laura Knoy:
And Knox, pardon me, because your line was clicking in and out. Did you say there's no mail service in Costa Rica?

Caller:
No, there's no mail service to the United States. There are no flights, and this is true for 91 nations, according to the United States Postal Office Service.

Laura Knoy:
I see. OK, gotcha. Thank you for calling in today from Costa Rica. It's great to hear from you. And Betsy, what about this?

Betsy McLain:
What Knox is talking about are our uniformed and overseas voters. And there is a federal program that's very proactive in helping folks who are overseas vote in their home and their home jurisdictions. We in Hanover have a large number of people that live overseas and a handful of uniformed services members. We are able to e-mail them the voting materials. That was a change several years ago and that's been very welcome. The recipient then needs to print out the materials, which include a ballot and what's called a UOCAVA, for uniformed officers and overseas registered voters or something, UOCAVA affidavit and then send it back. Knox, what I have been telling our South American residents, is to try to work through DHL or some other commercial carrier to get their printed ballot back to us.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that's interesting. So some of those commercial carriers like FedEx or DHL and so forth, because there isn't sort of regular mail flights. Wow. I had no idea you were dealing with so much of this, Betsy. It's kind of interesting. Well, all sorts of skills when you're the town clerk in Hanover.

Laura Knoy:
Thank you for calling, Knox, and another listener wanted to know what postage is required on absentee ballots. The envelope suggests a need for extra postage. Casey, you've been looking into this for your reporting for NHPR. What have you found out?

Casey McDermott:
Yeah. So it is important to note for people that you will be required to affix additional postage on your own to return your absentee ballot. I reached out to the secretary of state's office because I will be honest, I had trouble finding an answer about this readily on the state's website or on other official guidance documents. And the question that I heard, or the answer that I got back from the secretary of state's office last night, actually, is that the return postage for the marked ballot in the affidavit envelope is one first class or forever stamp. If the voter includes anything else in the envelope, like absentee voter registration materials, then the postage will be more. So that's not necessarily a clear or straightforward answer, but I think it's, the kind of tough response is probably better safe than sorry. And if you think you're kind of on the edge about how much postage you've affixed, it may not be a bad idea if you can swing it, to put extra on just to make sure. The United States Postal Service has stressed in other kind of public statements that they do try to make sure that ballots are, you know, delivered and that they're treated carefully in the postal process. But it is the responsibility of the voter to acquire that postage needed to return their ballot. And it's also worth noting that the state, people may recall earlier this spring when it was first clear that we would be dealing with COVID for a while, and that may require us to rethink how we approach our elections here in New Hampshire, the state convened an advisory committee of people to provide guidance or suggestions on what kind of policy changes the state should make to its voting processes to prepare for coronavirus. And one of the recommendations of that panel was that the state should prepay postage for absentee ballots and the state did not take up that recommendation. So this is something that's been discussed at length. But at the end of the day, it does remain the responsibility of the voter to get the postage for their absentee materials.LL

Laura Knoy:
Let's take another call. This is Jim in Dover. Hi, Jim. You're on The Exchange. Good morning.

Caller:
Good morning. Thank you. I just want to put out one idea, which I call one stop voting, particularly for the primary that's next week. It's really too late to request an absentee ballot and mail it back in. But you can go to your own office or city office, request the absentee ballot, fill it out and turn it right back in there in one stop voting. And that's really important at this point for the primary. And then about absentee balloting in general, it's really a big plus because you get the ballot before, and you can study the candidates and you can get it in and not have to go to the polls and risk COVID and risk the poll workers, so absentee balloting is a really positive thing I think that we should be doing a lot more of.

Laura Knoy:
Jim, it's great to hear from you. And Lynn, what do you think? One stop voting.

Lynn Christensen:
We've done that for a long time and we've been promoting it, because it does, particularly right now when we're so close to the election, I've been publishing in everything that I can, go in and get your ballot. Take it back out to your car so you're voting in private. Bring it back in and give it. Merrimack has a separate window so that you don't have to wait in line with all the people that are trying to register their cars and their dogs and everything else. You can go right in and the absentee ballots get processed there. So it's it really saves you time. But absolutely, at this point, you need to get your ballot and do not mail it. Either bring it back to town hall or bring it to the polls.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and Jim mentioned going to the polls, putting yourself at risk, putting poll workers at risk. What is the policy, Lynn, in Merrimack this year surrounding mask wearing at the polls?

Lynn Christensen:
I wondered when we were going to get to this one. Merrimack is requiring anybody that comes into the polls to wear a mask, that includes voters, it includes workers, it includes town council members, it includes party challengers, it includes the janitor that works in the building. Anybody that walks in is going to be required to wear a mask. We have masks available for those that don't have their own. If you are a voter and you can't or won't wear a mask or you are someone who wants to register to vote on that day, we have a separate location just outside the door under a tent that you can go to so that you'll be doing it by yourself, separate from everybody else. Your ballot will be brought to you and you'll be able to vote. You'll be able to register, and then the ballot will be brought in and placed in the machine. But you will not be allowed in the building itself.

Laura Knoy:
How about you, Betsy? What are you guys doing in Hanover around the mask issue?

Betsy McLain:
Yeah, in Hanover we do have a mask ordinance, so masks are required in our downtown area. So that luckily sort of it's part of the vernacular now after a couple of weeks or so. And we, like Merrimack, will be requiring masks for everyone that enters the polling place. And our moderator has set up so that actually everybody that enters the polling place will also be COVID-screened. He's got volunteer doctors that will be there, that will be issuing screening. We as well will have an outdoor tent where folks who either can't or won't wear a mask will be able to cast an absentee ballot there. And again, I did want to applaud the fact that we got lots of PPE from the state to make our polling places safe. And those did include gloves and masks. So there will be several masks available to our folks. And we don't anticipate that being a problem in our jurisdiction. Again, probably because we've bitten the bullet and have the mask ordinance. So we have gone through a lot of that angst already.

Laura Knoy:
All right. Well, Casey, very quickly, primary next Tuesday. Where can listeners find more information, Casey, if they've still got questions? Because we did not get to everybody's question today.

Casey McDermott:
Yes. And there are a lot so and nhpr.org. And if you have questions, send them to elections@nhpr.org. And we will do our best to follow up with you and get you to the right person who can help.

Laura Knoy:
All right, Casey, thank you very much for helping us out today. We always appreciate it. Thank you. That's NHPR's Casey McDermott. Lynn Christensen, thank you for being with us.

Always fun. Lynn Christensen is Merrimack Town moderator. And Betsy McClain, good luck to you. With the elections coming up, you're going to be busy. That's Betsy MacLain, town clerk for Hanover. And again, as Casey said, listeners, if we didn't get your questions today, we have a special email. It's elections@nhpr.org. Thanks for listening. I'm Laura Knoy.