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The State We’re In: Absentee Voting Information
We are two weeks away from a historic election and we’re facing a national pandemic, changes to the voting process, and a drastic influx of misinformation simultaneously. David Scanlan, New Hampshire Deputy Secretary of State, joins The State We’re In host Melanie Plenda, of the Granite State News Collaborative, to discuss changes in this year’s voting season and the steps voters need to take to ensure their ballot is counted.
View the segment above, or read the transcript below.
Melanie Plenda: How many registered voters are there in New Hampshire? Are we seeing an increase in the numbers now compared to the primaries in past elections?
David Scanlan: The number of registered voters in New Hampshire after the state primary that was just held in early September is just over a million voters. That is an increase. Our population is slowly growing over time and that’s also reflected in the number of voters that we have participate in our elections.
Melanie Plenda: According to the latest Granite State poll from the UNH survey center, one in six New Hampshire residents have already voted via absentee ballot. How does this number compare to the primary?
David Scanlan: In a typical presidential general election year, we would expect about 10% of the voters to cast their votes on an absentee ballot. We have already surpassed that number of absentee ballots that had been requested and returned to the town clerks, and there are many more ballots that are in transit between the clerk’s office, the voters, and then the voters returning those ballots back to the clerks.
Melanie Plenda: As you probably are well aware, many are nervous about the security of absentee voting. How will communities ensure that the process is secure?
David Scanlan: New Hampshire is unique among most States in the country in that to obtain an absentee ballot, the voter has to communicate directly with the town or city clerk. Voters make a request for an absentee ballot, and there has to be a specific reason for making that request. This year under pandemic conditions the attorney general, the secretary of state, and the governor have made a determination that concerns over COVID-19 constitutes a disability for the purposes of voting by absentee ballot.
Once the request for an absentee ballot is made, the clerk makes a note of that, sends the ballot to the voter, the voter when he or she receives it should fill it out as quickly as possible, seal it in the affidavit envelope, and then sign the affidavit envelope. That’s very important to make sure that there’s a signature on it. If the reason for obtaining it is for COVID-19, then they would sign the disability portion of the affidavit and place it in the mailing envelope. If that envelope simply contains the ballot and the affidavit envelope, then the return postage to the clerk will be one first class stamp. Get it in the mail or hand deliver it to the clerk’s office.
Once that’s done, the clerk will receive it and keep it safe until the ballot is processed on election day. Any voter can also track their absentee ballot. As long as they can enter their name and their birth date into a voter lookup application on the secretary of state website, they can actually follow their absentee ballot and see where it is in the process.
Melanie Plenda: Can you explain that to people why is it that you can track it that way?
David Scanlan: Because the information related to the request for an absentee ballot and at what stage the absentee ballot is in is entered into the state election voter database. And because that information is in there, the voter is able to then provide their personal information into the app, and it will pull that information from the database so that they can see whether the clerk has entered entries as far as receiving the application for the ballot, sending the ballot to the voter, receiving the ballot back, and ultimately whether that absentee ballot was counted or rejected.
Melanie Plenda: If it’s rejected, then what happens at that point?
David Scanlan: If a ballot is rejected and the voter does not take any opportunity that might be available to cure the reason for the rejection, then that ballot will not be counted. It’s preserved with all of the other cast ballots, but the ballot will not be counted.
Melanie Plenda: Is the voter notified and then given a chance to remedy it to, to change it, how does that work exactly?
David Scanlan: In past elections, it has been very difficult to contact voters to cure a defect on the absentee ballot. The issue is because they by statute are processed on the day of the election. Because of COVID-19 the legislature passed a bill at the tail end of the last legislative session, which allows the local election officials to preprocess absentee ballots on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Monday before the election. What that process allows the election officials to do is to open the outer envelope – not opening the affidavit envelope, which contains the ballot, but the outer envelope, allowing the election officials to view the affidavit on the envelope. Let’s say that the affidavit is not signed, that’s a reason to reject an absentee ballot.
That local election official will be able to contact that voter and say, if you’re around and you have an opportunity to come in, you can still sign the affidavit on your absentee ballot so that we can make sure that it counts. That process was used successfully by some communities for the primary election and most voters that were contacted because there was an issue with their ballot were able to come to the town hall, visit the clerk and correct the defect before the election.
Melanie Plenda: If a person does request an absentee ballot and then changes their mind and wants to vote in person, is that possible? Can they do that?
David Scanlan: Yes, there’s an opportunity for a voter who has already cast an absentee ballot or already submitted an absentee ballot to show up at the polls during the first hour that the polls are open and they can request a ballot to vote in person, because absentee ballots can not be finally processed until an hour after the polls open. When that happens, their name is crossed off the checklist as having voted in person. Then when it comes time to process the absentee ballot, the moderator will see that and reject the absentee ballot because the voter showed up to vote in person. After the first hour passes, voters can still show up at the polls and if their absentee ballot has not finally been processed they would still be able to vote in person.
Melanie Plenda: When is the last day that a person can request an absentee ballot?
David Scanlan: An absentee ballot can be requested up until five o’clock the day before the election. Town clerks and city clerk’s offices are required to be open between the hours of three and five for that purpose. Anytime they visit the clerk to obtain one, they can fill it out on the spot, sign the affidavit on the envelope, and they can actually hand it back to the clerk at the same time.
Melanie Plenda: There have been some cases where unofficial ballots have been sent to people with the wrong return address. How can people verify that what they’ve received is correct?
David Scanlan: The mailing from the local election officials, the town clerks that are sending out the absentee ballots will be official. The envelopes that are provided will be very clear that they are the envelopes for the election. When a voter fills out the absentee ballot, places it in the envelopes that were sent to them by the clerk and delivers it to the post office, it will be very obvious to the United States postal service workers that those are ballots, and the postal service will give those ballots special treatment to make sure that they arrive at the polling place by five o’clock on the day of the election to make sure that they’re counted.
Melanie Plenda: Are there any other bits of misinformation causing confusion over this process that you’d like to address?
David Scanlan: There is a lot of information flying around out there right now about elections and it is in the media, it is also on social media, and all of the electronic platforms that are out there that can convey information. If a voter questions information that they have received from whatever source we would strongly recommend that the voter contact either a state election official in the secretary of state’s office or the attorney General’s office, or better yet contact your local town clerk or moderator or supervisors of the checklist, because those are the individuals responsible for conducting the election. They know the procedures and the processes that are in place, and those are the individuals that can give you accurate information about casting your ballot and making sure that your ballot counts.
Melanie Plenda: As we discussed, there are still many who will choose to vote in person. What precautions are being implemented at the polls to ensure everyone’s safety?
David Scanlan: There are a lot of precautions being taken at the polling place to make sure that voters and poll workers are safe leading into this election. After we knew that the COVID pandemic was going to be a real issue, we had to for worst-case scenarios in terms of the number of absentee ballots that would be submitted and in terms of the number of voters that would show up at the polling place. Every polling place has received large amounts of PPE, personal protective equipment that can be used by poll workers and they can be used by voters.
And so when a voter goes to the polling place in November to cast their ballot in the general election, the first thing that they will see will probably be lines that look longer than normal. That is because there’s going to be social distancing applied, and that space that’s required is simply going to spread everybody out. The lines themselves may not take any longer to work your way through than a regular election, but they will look longer. When a voter gets to the check-in table or the registration table, the election officials are going to be sitting behind large plastic shields just to protect them. They will be wearing masks and face coverings, they might be wearing gloves, and many of those items will be available to voters if they feel that they need them as well, certainly masks, gloves, large quantities of hand sanitizer, and there will be special protective covers for the ballot that a voter can use as a mat in the voting booth that they can lay their ballot on so they don’t have to contact the writing surface.
Then once they’re done, they can fold that mat over their ballot and take it to the optical scan counting device so that the marks on their ballot are not visible to anybody else. They will be able to feed their ballot through that device from the protective mat. There will be single-use pens available that each voter will receive to mark their ballot and when they’re done, they can either toss it out or keep it as a souvenir for voting in this election.
Melanie Plenda: Are there enough poll workers around the state for general election day?
David Scanlan: It’s amazing that most poll workers are continuing to work at the polling place, even though many of them might be considered in the high-risk category of being over the age of 60, but that’s a real tribute to the civic-mindedness and the concern that they have to make sure that elections are conducted and conducted safely.
We have also had many people step forward to volunteer to work in this election for the first time, so that they can relieve those older workers that are concerned for their health and safety and are choosing not to work in the polling places, and there’s still plenty of time to sign up if any of your viewers are interested in helping out with that process. Our election officials are very well trained; they are up to speed on the conditions related to this election. We believe that they’re prepared to conduct an election that runs smoothly and our expectation is that at the end of the night – it might be longer than normal – they’re going to be able to release accurate results of how voters chose to vote in this election.
Melanie Plenda: How do people sign up if they’re interested?
David Scanlan: If they are interested, they should contact their city or town clerk or moderator and ask how they can help.
Melanie Plenda: Have you added any voting machines or polling places this year because of the expected influx of people who are going to be voting?
David Scanlan: We have not added additional voting machines. The decision to use a counting device is made at the local level. There is one device that is approved for use in the state of New Hampshire, and that’s the Accuvote optical scan counting machine. The state is going to have a supply that we are going to rent for the general election just to have available for any polling places that may have an unusually high number of absentee ballots and may need the additional resource to help them process those on the day of the election.
Melanie Plenda: Anything else you’d like to say to this year’s voters?
David Scanlan: We always encourage voters in New Hampshire to exercise the most fundamental right that they have and participate in civic government. Whether you choose to go to the polls in person to vote or whether you choose to vote by absentee ballot, it is a fairly easy process. Voters just need to follow through, we would recommend and suggest and encourage all voters to participate in this election.