Election in the time of Covid-19

Committee on Election Security faces a range of complex issues

As reported in an earlier column, Secretary of State Bill Gardner appointed me as chair of a six-person Special Committee on Election Security earlier this spring, to advise him on how to deploy the $3.2 million of federal funds provided to New Hampshire to cover extra election costs this year.

It has become increasingly clear that this effort, in New Hampshire and all other states, literally could affect the future of the world. If we do not get this right, the election may not reflect the opinion of the people in each state, and that will threaten the credibility of our democratic system.

While the committee is still deliberating as this is written May, several observations can be made about the process and our election system.

The first is that a group of six New Hampshire citizens can become a working team quickly. The members are three men, three women, three Democrats, three Republicans. Four —  Katherine Hanna of Bedford, former counsel to Gov. John Lynch; Eugene Van Loan, former Bedford town moderator; Rep. Barbara Griffin of Goffstown, former chair of the House Election Law Committee; and I, chair of the Ballot Law Commission — are attorneys. State Sen. Dr. Thomas Sherman of Rye has special expertise on health issues. Former Farmington Town Clerk Kathy Seaver brings over 40 years of experience as a local election official.

Next is the complexities of the issues. Voting by absentee ballot in record numbers, which all expect in this year of social distancing, is complicated. In addition, such matters as how to change political registration, register to vote, file as a candidate and apply for ballots or registration forms, have to be made available, and known to be available, to voters and candidates.

Some estimates are that a super-majority of voters will choose to vote absentee this year. Processing all those ballots under present law is a challenge for local election officials, who note that absentee ballots come back folded, which often makes them jam ballot-counting machines.

Therefore, whether the ballots can be sent in larger envelopes so they stay flat has been explored. If that solution is selected, the cost of mailing, both for municipalities and voters, triples. That leads to the issue of whether federal funds should be used to pay the cost of mailing ballots. On and on it goes.

Issues of making polling places safe are complex as well. Can we eliminate the lines created by those wanting to switch back to undeclared after voting in a primary? What personal protective equipment needs to be provided to poll workers and voters? Can voters be required to wear masks, have their temperatures taken or be denied access to voting? Are larger facilities needed? Can town and city clerks have multiple sites for a period prior to the election where voters can go one by one, fill out an absentee ballot and turn it in? What are the differences faced by towns that count ballots by hand and do not use machines?

The committee was greatly impressed by the dedication and knowledge of our local election officials and how passionately they believe in the election system and want to make it work. New Hampshire citizens should thank all of them, without whom we would not have a functioning democracy.

As the work of the committee progressed, many advocacy groups, also invited to present to the committee, consistently bombarded members with email advice. That leads to a couple of observations.

One, polite emails are more effective. Two, a good idea does not get better when heard a hundred times in exactly the same wording. Three, there are a lot of dedicated people in New Hampshire who care about elections.

One theme heard often is that if we only had “voting by mail” for all voters, everything would be just fine. In fact, states which have adopted such systems, like Oregon, do not have the same level of participation New Hampshire has. Our state always is in the highest turnout group. However, this year is unique. The pandemic means that the state needs voters to vote absentee in large numbers so they and the process will be safe. This is a unique year. It is also a presidential election year. We have to get this right!

Brad Cook is a Manchester attorney. The views expressed in this column are his own. He can be reached at bradfordcook01@gmail.com.

Categories: Cook on Concord