House Election Law Chair Calls Secretary of State Election Training Procedures Into Question After Embarrassing Voter Assistance Inquiry

During the November 2018 State General Election, a Charlestown mother assisted her disabled son at the polls. NH RSA 659:20, Assistance in Voting, is quite clear that “a person of the voter’s choice” may assist a voter who needs assistance in marking the ballot.   19-year-old Justin Milliken is a registered voter in the town of Charleston; he has cerebral palsy and a seizure condition and cannot fill out a paper ballot on his own. A Charlestown Supervisor of the Checklist subsequently filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office questioning whether Justin could effectively communicate his choice in candidates.

Earlier this month, the Attorney General’s office cleared Justin’s mother, Dee, of any wrongdoing in assisting her disabled son at the polls, dismissing any suggestion she had committed voter fraud, and chastised Nancy Houghton, the Supervisor of the Checklist who had filed the complaint by pointing out “…that the Supervisors of the Checklist have no responsibility with respect to the voter assistance oath…” and warned that in the future, “…if any Charlestown election official has any questions regarding…allowing a registered voter to vote, they should always call either the Attorney General’s Office or the Secretary of State’s office to discuss the situation before…denying a voter the right to vote.”

On June 14th, Rep. David Cote of Nashua, Chair of the House Election Law Committee, issued a press release urging the Secretary of State’s office “to review current training procedures for local elections to ensure that such an embarrassment does not recur anywhere in the State of New Hampshire ever again.” He continued, “I am troubled by recent reports in the wake of these events, that Mr. Milliken may be discouraged in the future exercise of his right to vote. I would urge him not to allow the exceptionally poor judgment shown on this occasion to affect in any way his enthusiasm for exercising this precious and vital constitutional right.”

In a statement released by the NH Disability Rights Center, the Center also voiced concern about the “problematic lack of training for Charlestown poll workers and election officials around voters who require assistance in voting, and accessible voting generally.”

Is Secretary of State Bill Gardner Trying to Influence the Legislature More This Year than in the Past?

The NH Business Review recently observed that Secretary of State Bill Gardner seems to be involving himself in legislative deliberations this session, more than in the past (June 7 – 20, 2019 issue).  Here’s what the publication had to say relative to HB 651:

“Is it only in the imagination, or does it seem that SOS Billy Gardner is putting in his 2 cents a lot more the last couple years?

The most recent one came when the SOS carped about a bill that would allow campaign contributions to be spent on child-care costs.  The goal, say backers, is to make it easier for young parents to run for office.  But the main point is that it’s also something that the Federal Election Commission has already endorsed for federal campaigns.

Apparently that’s not enough for the SOS, who opposed the NH bill on the grounds that it would be unfair to donors.

Starts to make you wonder if he’s just a grudge against young people.

Nah, couldn’t be.”

On Thursday, June 13, the House concurred with the Senate’s amendment to HB 651 and the bill is headed to the Governor.

As a member of the House Election Law Committee, I can attest that the Secretary of State or the Deputy Secretary of State attended almost every public hearing of our committee during the 2019 session.  Often, their testimony began: “We are not taking a position on this bill, but…” and the office would then bash elements in the proposed legislation without making recommendations on how to fix any “weaknesses” they perceived in the bills.  On one occasion, a subcommittee had spent considerable time working on an amendment to HB 408, relative to the postponement of town meetings and local elections (due to inclement weather), and the Secretary of State walked into a subcommittee meeting 10 minutes prior to its deadline to report and said the bill wouldn’t work because some towns sometimes have concurrent state elections to fill vacancies in a state office and town moderators did not have the right to postpone state elections.  He had had multiple opportunities to raise this concern during the public hearing on this bill and during an earlier subcommittee work session, but did not do so.  As a result of this last-minute objection, the House Election Law Committee had little choice but to ask the committee to retain HB 408.  Fortunately, a similar bill had been introduced in the Senate (SB 104).  The Senators took the work of the House Election Law Committee, addressed the Secretary of State’s point, and passed SB 104.  The House concurred with that bill.

Yes, Secretary Gardner has been very active in trying to influence legislative policy in public and behind the scenes during the current legislative session.  Guidance, advice, and interpretation of proposed legislation from the Secretary of State is appropriate and welcome.  However, the development of legislative priorities, procedures and policies is the purview of the General Court — the House and Senate — not the Secretary of State.

Anniversaries

From June 2 through June 8, the NH Legislature celebrated the 200th anniversary of the construction of the NH State House, which began in 1816 and was completed in 1819. The first session of the General Court in this building also occurred in 1819. The NH State House Bicentennial Commission held a series of events and programs to commemorate the building’s anniversary including re-enactments, a Cultural Heritage and Arts Day on the Plaza, tours, and special programs.

But this week also marked several other anniversaries which members of the House commemorated during remarks on the floor. This week marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Normandy landing operations during World War II, which occurred on June 6, 1944.  It was the largest seaborne invasion in history.  Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English channel that day. Allied casualties on the first day were estimated to be at 10,000. The operation laid the foundation for the Allied victory on the Western front.

77 years ago – from June 4 – 7, 1942 – the United States Navy defeated an attacking fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy at Midway, inflicting devastating and irreparable damage on the Japanese fleet. The Battle of Midway, which occurred just six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, is widely considered a turning point in the Pacific War.

And 100 years ago – on June 4, 1919 – Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which would grant all American women the right to vote. Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920, and eight days later the Secretary of State ratified passage of the 19th Amendment.

NH’s program to recognize the bicentennial of its State House building was a wonderful experience, but I was very pleased that members of the House took to the floor this week to recognize these other, important anniversaries and to honor the people whose sacrifices preserved the country and shaped the times we live in today.

Bill Allowing No-excuse Absentee Voting in NH is Approved by Senate and House

On Thursday, May 30th, the New Hampshire Senate voted 13 – 11 to pass HB611 which would allow any voter who wishes, to cast his or her ballot by mail.  Under current law, voters may only cast absentee ballots if they will be absent from the town or city where they live on election day, have a disability that prevents them from going to the polls, or have conflicts due to religious commitments, employment, the uncompensated care of children or infirm adults, or due to severe weather warnings.  The bill now heads to the Governor’s desk for his signature of approval — or veto.

Passage of this bill will significantly impact the volume of absentee ballots that will need to be processed by NH election officials.  During the 2016 State General Election, for example, 3,499 absentee ballots were cast in the City of Nashua.  It would not be unreasonable to assume that this number could double for the 2020 State General Election if HB611 becomes law.  However, supporters of the bill believe that a vote-by-mail option for all qualified voters in NH will increase involvement in the political process.

In a statement released following the Senate’s approval of this bill, the prime sponsor, Rep. Katherine Rogers of Concord, stated “It is time that we join the majority of states in America and increase access to the ballot box by allowing no-excuse absentee balloting….Allowing all eligible voters to access absentee ballots is not only fair, it ultimately increases involvement in the democratic process.”