When It Comes to Voting, N.H. Sticks to Tradition — But Not Everyone's Happy About It

Nov 7, 2016

When New Hampshire voters walk into the polls Tuesday, they’ll be greeted by a process that has remained largely unchanged for decades: paper ballots, filled out by hand, with voter rolls monitored by pencil-wielding clerks. And the way the state’s top election official sees it, there’s little reason to mess with a good thing.

“You have 50 different laboratories out there of the states, and what I’ve seen just affirms the process that we have here, and the turnout that we get here,” says Secretary of State Bill Gardner. “And that’s what it’s all about, that’s the turnout.”

"I have not been an advocate of doing what other states have done, because I've been suggesting to other states, 'You ought to be like us.' "

While more than three dozen states allow some form of early voting, New Hampshire residents still have to show up in person on Election Day (unless they meet the requirements to be able to vote absentee) to cast their ballots.

Record-keeping at the polls is still largely a paper-based affair — a process that, according to local clerks, has led to backlogs and long lines standing between voters and their ballots.

And New Hampshire voters who want to register or update their information, similarly, have to do so in person and on paper — because it’s one of the few states that don't let residents do so online.

(Scroll down to see how New Hampshire compares to the rest of the country on early voting, online registration and other electoral reforms.)

“I have not been an advocate of doing what other states have done, because I’ve been more suggesting to other states, you ought to be like us,” Gardner says, citing his opposition to early voting, new machines at the polls and other voting modernization efforts adopted elsewhere in recent years. “States have been trying for 40 years to find new ways to make it easier and easier, and the turnout has been going the other way. I don’t want to be part of making change that the facts show what happens is you cheapen the value of the ballot.”  

New Hampshire's turnout among eligible voters is usually near the top of the nation, but that turnout rate can vary widely from election to election.
Credit Data: Electproject.org

New Hampshire boasts higher turnout among eligible voters than many other states — but its turnout seesaws significantly, by more than 20 percent, depending on whether it’s a presidential election or midterm election.  In the 2012 presidential election, New Hampshire had the third-highest turnout in the nation at 70 percent; in 2014, it was in ninth place nationwide, with just under half of the electorate casting ballots.

And if you ask proponents of the kinds of changes Gardner opposes, they say it’s important to look not just at who is showing up at the polls – it’s also important to look at who isn’t.

“How are we reducing barriers and obstacles to certain populations so that everyone in the state can exercise their fundamental right?” says Devon Chaffee, executive director of New Hampshire’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “That includes whether they’re senior citizens or people with disabilities, or they’re people who have significant demands, caregiver demands, or inflexible work obligations.”

The ACLU, along with local chapters of America Votes and the League of Women Voters, have supported proposals to allow for online voter registration and early voting, which have mostly faltered in recent years in the New Hampshire Legislature.

But it’s not just big advocacy groups who say the state needs to update its voting procedures. Local election officials and New Hampshire voters, particularly those who need extra assistance at the polls, also say the current system is far from perfect. And for some, Gardner himself is the reason.

“I think that we need to take the word ‘they’ out of the equation and replace it with the word ‘he.’ I don’t think everyone working under the Secretary of State has the same outlook on it as the secretary does,” says Mary Reynolds, the city clerk in Laconia and the president of the New Hampshire City and Town Clerks Association. “And with all due respect for him, I think that he has been doing this for so long and things have been going on for so long the way that they have, he’s very cautious — which, in many cases, is a good thing —  but in some cases, over-cautious.”

Under Pressure at the Polls, Clerks Seek Ways to Streamline

To clerks like Reynolds and others who are pushing for improvements in the state’s election system, the areas where New Hampshire’s lagged behind its peers aren’t merely a matter of convenience or keeping up with the times.

Take the issue of e-pollbooks, for example, an effort to move from a paper-based voter check-in process at the polls to a more streamlined digital process.

Earlier this year, a group of local clerks and lawmakers from all sides of the aisle rallied behind a plan to pilot an electronic voter check-in system in Manchester, Hooksett and Durham during the state primary.

Right now, that process is done entirely on paper. Voters are sorted alphabetically into lines based on their last names at the polls. If one of those lines gets backed up, clerks say there’s not a good way to alleviate that delay because only one person can handle that particular voter checklist at a time.

With an electronic system, the poll workers would all work from the same master list, which could update in real-time at the polls — alleviating the potential that voters would get stuck waiting in long lines and, in some cases, decide to leave altogether.

“What we see is if someone goes to a polling place and there is a line to park their car and the line is out to the highway, do they leave and do they ever come back to vote?” says Paula Hodges, of New Hampshire’s chapter of America Votes.

In April, a number of clerks spent nearly an hour telling legislators why such an approach would make their jobs, and voters’ experiences, much easier — and urging them to move forward with the pilot in September’s elections, still four months away.

The only people who testified against the proposal were Gardner and his deputy, Assistant Secretary of State Dave Scanlan. At the hearing, Gardner pointed to a failed effort to implement new voting machines in Manchester back in the 1980s as one cautionary tale, and also argued that other states who have adopted new technology at the polls have come to regret it.

"Sitting behind a big mahogany desk up at the big gold building, I don't think that they necessarily understand what it's like and what we need from them on Election Day to be successful."

Ultimately, the Secretary of State’s office argued that there wasn’t enough time to fully prepare for the pilot ahead of the elections in September — and the pilot was put off, at least for now. The Secretary of State’s office has since started organizing hearings to look into initiating e-pollbooks in future elections, but Reynolds sees the decision to hold off as a missed opportunity to explore a possible solution to the very real challenges facing local election officials.

The paper-based checklist is just one part of a labor-intensive election process facing pollworkers, Reynolds said, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to recruit people to serve— because of the long hours, complex processes and limited availability of in-person trainings from the Secretary of State’s office.

If those issues aren’t addressed, Reynolds worries it’s only going to get more difficult to find people to actually make sure the elections are being run smoothly. In other states, federal money awarded through the Help America Vote Act has been used to create online training modules for pollworkers, in addition to paying for things like e-pollbooks — and Reynolds would like to see New Hampshire look more seriously at these kinds of investments, too.

“There’s some times that you’ll sit back and you’ll go, 'Man, I just wish that they were on the front line. I just wish that they could see what it was really like,' ” she says. “Because sitting behind a big mahogany desk up at the big gold building, I don’t think that they necessarily understand what it’s like and what we need from them on Election Day to be successful.”

Some Frustrated By Slow Move Toward Improving Accessibility

Voters and advocates in the state’s disability community have also been disappointed by the slow pace of change in New Hampshire elections. Those voters say they were hopeful, earlier this year, when the state rolled out a new accessible voting system during the presidential primary. Instead of the old fax-based system that had been in place for years, New Hampshire became the first state to adopt a new tablet-based voting system in February’s presidential primary.

While voters who used the new system said it was an improvement over the old way of doing things, the results were mixed. Some said their experience was seamless, but others reported problems with the voice software used to read the names on the ballot, the keypads used to enter in the selection and the level of understanding among pollworkers about how to help voters through the process on Election Day.

Maggie Jesperson of Manchester attends a training session on how to use the state's new accessible voting system for the blind earlier this year.
Credit Michael Brindley, NHPR

  A group of voters who struggled with the machines say they tried to bring these issues to the Secretary of State’s office with the hopes of seeing them fixed in time for the next election, but the issues have not been addressed.

Officials with the Secretary of State’s office say they’re proud to have been able to roll out what has been lauded as state-of-the-art technology for voters with disabilities, but they acknowledge that perfecting that system remains a work in progress. They plan to meet with voters to fix the issues — but not until after the election.

Guy Woodland, a voter in Concord who is blind and has been fighting to improve accessible voting in New Hampshire for years, says he’s been disappointed with what he views as a lack of urgency on the state’s part in creating a system that works for voters who need extra assistance at the polls.

“We certainly want to be a reasonable partner in coming up with a solution,” Woodland says. “But they seem to not want to work with the persons it’s going to impact the most, and by not doing that they’re making very poor decisions.”

Compared to Others, N.H. Remains Slow to Spend on Election Improvements

The state, it turns out, has the money to pay for just these kinds of fixes.

Thanks to a federal law passed more than a decade ago, New Hampshire got about $18 million meant to improve its elections processes — streamlining voter registration, the experience at the polls, accessibility technology for voters with disabilities and so on.

Source: U.S. Election Assistance Commission

  To date, though, New Hampshire has only spent a fraction of that money. It still has about half of the original amount, plus interest.

Election officials here say that’s because they’re being prudent — financially and otherwise. State law places limits on how much of the money can be spent at a time, requiring a balance of at least 12 times what it costs to maintain the programs that were put in place to comply with the Help America Vote Act.

Based on figures provided by the Secretary of State’s office, the state is within that target, with some room leftover: The current balance of the election fund is about $10.1 million, and the cost of maintaining programs in the last fiscal year was about $691,000; accounting for 12 more years of paying for programs at that same rate would leave the state with $1.8 million in unmarked funds. (The annual program costs can, however, fluctuate from year to year.)

Gardner also points to states that spent their money on electronic voting systems, only to have those systems become out-of-date within a few years.

“The states that spent all of their money the quickest were the states that purchased state of the art technology, computer-based direct recording electronic equipment without paper trails, which was encouraged by what was called the Election Assistance Commission,” Gardner says. “And we didn’t do that.”

Wary of federal attempts to encroach on states’ independence in running their own elections, Gardner has repeatedly clashed with the Election Assistance Commission. In 2011, he argued that the commission should be dissolved entirely. 

New Hampshire is also one of the last states to face an audit of how it spends its money, which has revealed more tension between Gardner’s office and the commission.

The state has argued that the HAVA money shouldn’t be treated as “grants” — which would carry additional requirements for how the state uses and keeps track of how the money’s being spent.  But in all of the other audits conducted so far, that’s been the standard.

The dispute has yet to be resolved, but the Inspector General overseeing an ongoing audit of New Hampshire’s HAVA funds says New Hampshire isn’t going to be held a different standard, unless they receive instructions to do so otherwise.

Here in New Hampshire, those on the outside who have been lobbying for changes say they’d welcome more clarity on how the state’s been using this money.

“One of the issues is, if we’re going to ask them for an improved voice machine and the only way to get a really good machine that’s not open source, not free, then the next question is — is there money available?” says Cindy Robertson, a staff attorney with the Disability Rights Center who’s been involved in efforts to improve the accessible voting systems. “If it is available and you aren’t spending it, then why aren’t you spending it? If you are spending it, then what is taking priority over this problem?”

In the meantime, Gardner remains adamant that New Hampshire is on the right track in how it runs elections.

When asked whether there are any upgrades that would not risk cheapening the election process, Gardner did not provide a direct answer. Instead, he points to polling that shows New Hampshire voters prefer the existing system of paper ballots to computerized systems, and that they’re confident that their votes are accurately counted.

“If you don’t have confidence, then you don’t vote. Because it has no value to you,” Gardner says. “People will go out of their way if there’s something that has value. People will make the effort, if it has value. If it doesn’t, they’re not going to do it.”

But computerized voting isn't among the reforms that advocates and clerks are asking for right now. And those pushing for changes say they’re more concerned with making sure people don’t have to bear too much effort to get to the voting booth in the first place.

More on How N.H. Voting Compares To Other States

Credit Sara Plourde, NHPR