This article was originally posted in the Seacoast Online on April 23rd, 2020
By State Sens. Melanie Levesque and Tom Sherman
The Granite State is known nationwide for our passion for and engagement in the democratic process. Our first-in-the-nation status brings candidates to our doors, our restaurants, and our living rooms as we actively participate and exercise our right to vote. In the 2020 presidential primary election, New Hampshire broke turnout records, and we are anxiously awaiting our chance to cast our next round of ballots in September’s state primary.
However, the spread of COVID-19 has dramatically changed our election landscape. While New Hampshire has always relied on a manual, in person voting majority, the risk to public health and uncertainty surrounding the spread of coronavirus requires us to take a hard look at our election systems. We must examine what changes are now required to ensure the safety, accessibility and security for our eligible voters both in the short term in the coming election with the challenge of the COVID-19 crisis but also how over the long term these changes will impact and protect our voters and voting systems.
Through the hard work of our federal delegation, New Hampshire will be receiving over $3.2 million in Election Security Grants. For years, New Hampshire has debated the need to modernize both our voting systems and election security. With public health at the forefront of our minds, now is the time to act as follows to ensure every eligible New Hampshire voter is able to register and cast their ballot without putting themselves or others at risk:
First, we need to invest in online voter registration systems. Last month, the Senate passed SB 631 to authorize online voter registration through a portal created and managed by the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office. Currently, 41 states have online voter registration; New Hampshire and Maine are the only remaining New England states without it. In those states that adopted online voter registration, it has become a key component of their election process, particularly for expanding access and participation for young voters, people with mobility issues and busy workers
Second, we need to establish automated voter registration. In March, the New Hampshire House passed SB 7 which would register every eligible voter through the Department of Motor Vehicles unless otherwise declined. Funding from the CARES Act that is specifically allocated for election assistance could be used to help fund a secure electronic data transfer system to allow the Secretary of State to upload voter data into the statewide centralized database to be reviewed by election officials. Not only does automated voter registration help to centralize the data and eliminate an additional step in the registration process, but the shared data between the DMV and Secretary of State would ensure an up to date voter checklist with automated updates anytime an individual changes their name or address. It is another option to register to vote. You can still choose to go to your city or town hall or register same day.
Third, it is critical that we expand access to voting by mail and absentee voting. Despite his previous hesitation, we are encouraged by the governor’s recent statements that should New Hampshire still be in a public health crisis come September, anyone may request an absentee ballot to ensure their safety and comfort. However, difficulties in physically accessing polling locations are not a new problem to New Hampshire. Shifting work schedules, childcare complications, and other extenuating circumstances often leave people without time to cast their vote on election day. Expanded absentee voting should not be a one-time fix, it is a long-term solution to guarantee access to every voter.
Fourth, we must provide financial and technical support to cities and towns that are actually implementing these changes in our election process in accordance with public health and safety protections. Aside from increased hard costs for physical polling locations, like hand sanitizer and cleaning requirements, we know changes like absentee ballot voting due to COVID-19 will have a dramatic impact on the costs of running elections due to increases in printing costs, postage costs, and the need for additional staff capacity to process those absentee ballots –none of which could have been accounted for in the municipal budgeting process.
Our democratic process is what makes us American, and our passion for engagement is a hallmark of New Hampshire. We don’t see voting as just a right, we see it as our civic duty — and it is not one that we take lightly. At the end of the month when New Hampshire receives our election assistance funding, we look forward to working to ensure that that money is used to increase accessibility, develop and implement modern and secure technology, and continue our proud tradition of informed engagement.
Sen. Melanie Levesque represents Senate District 12 in the Nashua area, and Sen. Tom Sherman represents Senate District 24 on the Seacoast.