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Should towns be allowed to process absentee ballots early?

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In the midst of the debate over absentee voting, there is one detail that has not gotten as much attention: the timing of counting absentee ballots. Timing may seem like a small administrative issue, but it can have a big impact on how people perceive the legitimacy of election results.

This year two New Hampshire bills – HB 61 and SB 47 – would allow early processing of absentee ballots as part of larger plans to expand absentee voting. Two other election-related bills, SB 83 and SB 89, would also allow early processing of absentee ballots.

About the absentee ballot counting process

There are many steps to requesting, sending, processing, and counting an absentee ballot.

Each mailed vote includes the unsigned ballot itself, a signed affidavit envelope to hold the ballot, and an outer envelope to mail the whole package. Voters can deliver an absentee ballot all the way until 5 p.m. on Election Day.

To process absentee ballots, town and city moderators must follow these steps:

  1. Open the outer mailing envelope
  2. Inspect the inner affidavit envelope to ensure that it is signed appropriately
  3. Publicly announce the name of the voter
  4. Open the affidavit and remove the folded ballot without examining it
  5. Cross the voter’s name off the checklist
  6. Place the ballot in the ballot box

Voters can observe the process and “challenge” an absentee voter’s ballot, for example if they know the person does not live at the address listed on the checklist. A ballot may also be excluded if it is not signed or there are other problems. There is a process in state law for segregating these challenged and rejected ballots, with different procedures depending on the problem. Under current state law, the processing of absentee ballots takes place on Election Day at least two hours after the polls open, at a publicly announced time. That means election officials are processing absentee ballots while also running in-person voting.

Why not just count ballots as they arrive?

While some states allow election officials to process absentee ballots as soon as they are received, New Hampshire voters have a right to show up in person at the polls even if they already mailed in a ballot. This is because New Hampshire requires people to vote in person if they do not have a valid excuse. So, for example, if your Election Day business trip is canceled, you are technically required to vote in person instead of absentee. That is why local officials can only start processing ballots two hours after the polls open; those first two hours allow any last-minute travel changes.

Early process for absentee ballots

In 2020 the Legislature temporarily changed the law so that towns and cities could partially process absentee ballots a few days before the election. This gave town officials a head start counting a record number of absentee votes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local officials could partially process absentee ballots at a publicly announced session the Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Monday prior to Election Day. Officials opened each outer mailing envelope, inspected the inner affidavit envelope without opening it, publicly announced the name of the voter for observers to challenge, and highlighted the voter’s name on the voter checklist.

On Election Day, election officials finished the rest of the absentee ballot counting process: opening the affidavit envelope, crossing the voter’s name off the checklist, and placing the ballot in the ballot box.

Current proposals on absentee ballot processing

The law allowing early, partial processing expired at the end of 2020. The Legislature will reconsider early processing as part of four 2021 bills: HB 61, SB 47, SB 83, and SB 89.

The first two bills, HB 61 and SB 47, would allow anyone in New Hampshire to vote absentee whether or not they will be physically absent on Election Day. Both bills also allow early processing absentee ballots.

The other two bills, SB 83 and SB 89, include early processing of absentee ballots in the midst of various other election law changes.

Whether or not these bills pass, the debate over early processing will likely continue. The debate first started with a bill back in the 1960s and there have been over a dozen related bills since.

Arguments for, against early absentee ballot processing

There are several competing interests when it comes to timing absentee ballot counts:

1. The public needs adequate opportunity to observe and challenge absentee ballots

Absentee ballots are processed in public, with observers, to ensure that each vote is legal and counted without fraud.

If election officials decide to process votes on a Thursday, with only 48 hours required notice, it may be difficult for anyone interested to get time off work and observe the process. It is much easier for the public to plan time off on Election Day.

On the other hand, if processing happens on a Saturday, it might be even easier for observers to participate without taking time off work.

2. Local officials don’t want to spend all night counting ballots – and neither does the public

Until 1967 local officials had to wait to process absentee ballots until the polls closed, which resulted in very late nights and slow election results. That kicked off the debate over how early officials can count absentee ballots.

This is not just a debate about convenience for election officials, however; the public also has an interest in swift election results. The 2020 general election demonstrated how drawn-out vote counts can lead to uncertainty about election results. Early processing of absentee ballots can greatly speed up results.

3. Absentee ballots need to be secure

Secretary of State Bill Gardner, Governor Chris Sununu, and officials across New Hampshire all affirm the integrity of New Hampshire’s voting process, including the expanded absentee voting in 2020. However, some Republicans are still wary of the integrity of absentee ballots. They believe absentee ballot envelopes should remain undisturbed until Election Day to guarantee there is no tampering.

4. Voters can get an opportunity to correct mistakes

Early processing of absentee ballots can give absentee voters a chance to correct errors if they submit ballots incorrectly. For example, if a voter fails to sign the affidavit holding his or her ballot, a local official can contact the voter and invite them to fix their ballot before Election Day.

What’s next for absentee voting in New Hampshire?

SB 47 had a public hearing in January and is waiting for a full Senate vote.

SB 83 had a public hearing February 8.

HB 61 and SB 89 are still waiting for public hearing dates.

Update 6/7/21: The Senate killed SB 47 and removed the early processing of absentee ballots from SB 83.  The House failed to vote on HB 61 before its deadline, so the bill is essentially dead.  The House voted to remove the early processing of absentee ballots from SB 89, killing the issue for 2021.  

There are many other bills related to every aspect of the absentee voting process, from requiring a photocopy of I.D. with absentee ballots to publishing a list of absentee voters after Election Day. You can find more information about these bills on the Citizens Count Voting Rights and Election Laws topic pages.


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