What to Watch For As the N.H. House Considers a Trio of Election Law Proposals

May 31, 2017

It’s been a busy session for anyone with an interest in New Hampshire elections, with dozens of bills filed to tinker with different parts of the state’s voting systems. 

Most of the proposals filed this session didn’t make it out of committee or have otherwise lost steam, for now at least. But on Thursday, three significant pieces of voting legislation will be up for a final vote in the House.

Here’s some background on each one.

SB3: Dealing With ‘Domicile’ 

Of all the voting bills filed this session, this one’s drawn the fiercest debate. It would bar people from voting if they’re only in the state for “temporary purposes” — including tourism or working on a political campaign — and would subject voters who don’t have the right kind of paperwork on Election Day to stricter scrutiny.

The latest version of SB3 differs in several ways from the one the Senate passed along party lines in March. It more clearly states that college students would still be able to vote in New Hampshire elections if they meet the eligibility standards already in current law. (Earlier drafts of the bill just said students had to prove “residency at an institution of higher learning,” but ambiguity around what that meant in practice added fuel to the debate over whether SB3 would make it harder for students to vote.)

The bill also now allows towns who don’t want to deal with verifying the credentials of voters who don’t have correct paperwork on Election Day to pass those cases off to the Secretary of State, instead.

SB113: A Step Toward Digitizing Election Day Check-In

This would let cities and towns begin the process of piloting electronic pollbooks (or “e-pollbooks”) as a digital replacement to the paper-based lists used to check in voters on Election Day. Both Republicans and Democrats have lined up behind the idea, arguing it would be a both step toward a more efficient election system and an added layer of protection against voter fraud, because it would ideally allow election workers to monitor in real-time whether a voter already tried to vote in another New Hampshire ward.

This isn’t the first time lawmakers have looked at an e-pollbook pilot. A similar proposal introduced last year earned bipartisan support from lawmakers and broad support from local election officials — but lacked the backing of the state’s top election officer. At the time, the Secretary of State argued that legislators were trying to rush too quickly into an e-pollbook pilot before the state had time to fully prepare for the new technology. (Even months after that proposal failed, tensions over the legislative debate still lingered — leading to a back-and-forth between the Secretary of State’s office and two city clerks who supported the legislation.) 

Unlike the e-pollbook proposal that failed in 2016, this one has the Secretary of State’s support.

SB248: Addressing Election Scheduling Adjustments, And (Separately) Absentee Voting

This bill stems from disputes over whether New Hampshire towns were allowed to reschedule their elections because of the March snowstorm — but it has a new provision, added within the last few weeks, that stems from a lawsuit challenging the state’s absentee ballot procedures.

In May, the ACLU accused the state of unconstitutionally tossing out hundreds of absentee votes because of “signature mismatch” — or inconsistencies between the signatures on a voter’s absentee application and the ballot itself. None of the New Hampshire voters who are plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit knew their ballots were rejected on this basis until months after the election.

Now, in addition to setting up a committee “to study the rescheduling of elections,” this bill also adds new language to the absentee ballot application cautioning voters that their ballot might be rejected if the signature on the application doesn’t match the signature on the ballot. In cases where a voter gets help completing his or her ballot because of a disability, the person helping the voter would also have to “make a statement acknowledging the assistance on the application form.”

Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan says the Secretary of State’s office supports the change as a way to provide more notice to absentee voters that their signatures will be under scrutiny.

“There has not been a conscious effort to reach out to voters to let them know that is the case, but clearly it’s in the statute, if somebody takes the time to read it,” Scanlan said.

While the state doesn’t notify voters that their absentee ballots have been rejected on Election Day, Scanlan said there is a way for voters to check the status of their ballot online after the election.  

Beyond this particular issue, Scanlan said absentee voting in general is an area of the state’s election code that’s overdue for some revision.  

“Absentee ballots in general is an area that is going to need some work and has needed work for some time,” he said. “It’s just there are always these more pressing election issues that kind of take over.”