A Primer on 2017 Election Reform Possibilities for the Granite State: From Early Voting to E-POLL (and Everything In-between)

Todd Selig

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

Thirty-seven states and Washington, D.C. offer some form of early voting where the rules make it convenient for voters to cast their ballots before Election Day without the requirement for an excuse to vote early. Early voting generally means that voters are either able to vote at polling stations open for early voting, or they’re able to pick up a ballot and cast it in one place before the election. 

In New Hampshire, only those who qualify under a rigid definition to get an absentee ballot can vote early.

“New Hampshire does have a unique culture of civic engagement, but we are at risk of becoming last in the nation in voter convenience and using technology to save our taxpayers time and money spent waiting in line,” said Paula Hodges, state director of America Votes, the pre-eminent national group pushing for election reforms, according to a Union Leader article by Kevin Landrigan on October 30, 2016.

Yet the state’s top election official and the longest-serving secretary of state in the nation would not have it any other way.

“Early voting has the opposite effect; it cheapens the value of the day itself,” said Secretary of State Bill Gardner in that same article. “With early voting for weeks if not months, by the time the real day comes, nobody pays much attention to it. Here the whole campaign builds to that crescendo on Election Day.”

In Massachusetts, there is an 11-day window at city and town halls prior to Election Day.

Maine and Vermont have had a 45-day window in which voters can request a ballot for any reason and cast it early.

New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut are the New England holdouts. In those three states, voters with a specific conflict that prevents them from getting to the polls on Nov. 8 can request an absentee ballot.

However, Gardner is convinced the easier you make voting, the less likely it is people will participate.

To date, the data suggests Gardner is right. A study from the University of Wisconsin -Madison published in the January 2014 American Journal of Political Science, Election Laws, Mobilization, and Turnout: The Unanticipated Consequences of Election Reform, indicates that while state governments have experimented with a variety of election laws to make voting more convenient and increase turnout, the impacts of these reforms vary in surprising ways, providing insight into the mechanisms by which states can encourage or reduce turnout.

The researchers conducted both aggregate and individual-level statistical analyses of voter turnout in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. The results showed that same-day Election Day registration policies, such as those utilized in New Hampshire whereby residents may both register to vote at the polling place on the day of the election and cast their ballot, has a consistently positive effect on turnout, whereas the most popular reform, early voting, is actually associated with lower turnout.

The researchers concluded that early voting has created negative unanticipated consequences by reducing the civic significance of elections for individuals and altering the incentives for political campaigns to invest in mobilization.

While early voting does not have merit for us, there are other reforms that might be considered for New Hampshire with potentially positive outcomes.

America Votes has advanced a plan to “strengthen integrity and build transparency into the voting process and improve access to the ballot box,” for New Hampshire. The campaign’s platform includes three state initiatives that were introduced as part of the 2016 legislative session, and will almost certainly be discussed further in the coming year.

The first proposes standardizing Election Day polling hours from 6:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. across New Hampshire (Editor’s Note: NHMA has opposed this proposal in testimony before the State Legislature), which would add both convenience and predictability for voters. The challenge with this initiative is that, as election officials in cities and towns know too well, we rely on citizen volunteers to staff our polling places, and it has already become increasingly difficult to find sufficient persons to staff existing polling hours. Don’t forget, before the polls open, and after the polls close, election officials and volunteers devote considerable time setting up, tabulating totals, and breaking down polling places. Extending hours makes the job much more difficult for already fatigued moderators, town clerks, supervisors, and selectpersons.

The second initiative from America Votes is to create an innovation grant system administered by the New Hampshire Secretary of State to support towns and cities to ensure they have the supplies, voting equipment for voters with physical impairments, absentee ballot envelopes, and technical support to implement streamlined polling place and registration processes. Such a grant program would be of immeasurable benefit to smaller NH communities who struggle mightily with the resources needed to orchestrate a smooth experience for voters on Election Day.

The third initiative is to implement a statewide online voter check-in system. Of all the reforms being discussed these days, the most promising is this, which was deliberated by the New Hampshire Legislature in pilot form as part of House Bill (HB) 1534 in 2016. Most people refer to this initiative as either “Electronic Poll Books,” “Poll Books,” or “E-POLL.”

There are many benefits of an electronic check-in system such as E-POLL: it is anticipated to dramatically reduce waiting lines, reduce the possibility of voter fraud, shorten the process for same-day registration, and eliminate weeks of post-election data entry. That is why the project has received support from the City and Town Clerks Association, the League of Women Voters, and America Votes, as well as from the New Hampshire Municipal Association — and why the chairs of both the Republican and Democratic state parties sent letters strongly supporting it.

The 2016 discussion centered around running a pilot project in three municipalities — Durham, Hooksett, and Manchester — to see how the E-POLL system works in practice and identify any potential problems, in advance of legislation to allow usage statewide.

Opponents of HB 1534 indicated they did not oppose the idea, but that there was not enough time to test the E-POLL system before the September 2016 primary, and the pilot project should wait instead until 2017 to demo at smaller elections. 

The fact that we have a significant period of time now before the next state primary gives New Hampshire a perfect opportunity to roll out some form of electronic voter registration system. It should be emphasized that E-POLL is a voter “check-in” system, not a voting system. The present paper ballots utilized in New Hampshire for voting work well and guarantee an accurate recount can be completed and verified.

College student voting is likely the final area that will receive significant scrutiny in 2017. Typically, Republican-leaning legislatures have expressed concern about the same-day registration of college students, primarily because it is perceived that most college students tend to favor more liberal perspectives and candidates, while Democratic-leaning legislatures have advocated for maintaining the existing New Hampshire definition of domicile.

In June 2012, the New Hampshire Legislature, overriding Gov. John Lynch’s veto, passed Senate Bill 318, which required people registering to vote to sign an affidavit agreeing they were subject to the state’s residency laws, “including laws requiring a driver to register a motor vehicle and apply for a New Hampshire driver’s license within 60 days of becoming a resident.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued imposing a “residency” condition on the right to vote would disenfranchise college students living in New Hampshire, a Manchester executive intending to retire in Florida, a medical resident living here while completing her hospital training, or a member of the U.S. Navy who lives in Portsmouth but knows he will be transferred somewhere else in two years.

Being domiciled, according to the ACLU, did not mean anyone could vote in the state simply because they want to or are in the state on Election Day. Instead, it argued, a person is domiciled in New Hampshire for voting purposes if that person has a continuous physical presence here and treats this state as “home.”

In 2015, the New Hampshire Supreme Court concurred with the ACLU and unanimously struck down the 2012 state law that required voters be state residents, not just domiciled here, in order to vote.

Trying to fine-tune the definition of what constitutes domicile, especially with the goal of excluding college students, has many unintended consequences that invariably impact non-college students, the elderly, or the poor. The existing system works. Leave it be; instead, focus state legislative energies on E-POLL; it’s an innovation whose time has come.

Originally from Laconia, Todd Selig has been the Administrator for the Town of Durham since 2001. He lives with his wife and two daughters (who cannot wait to be old enough to cast their own ballots) in Durham, NH.