House panel OKs amendment on separation of federal, state election processes

By: - May 19, 2021 3:23 pm
People voting in voting booths

The Freedom to Vote Act would make Election Day a national holiday and set minimum standards each state must have for elections. (Getty Images)

This article was updated at 3:50 p.m. on May 19, 2021 to reflect the fact that the bills will be voted on before the House and that Rep. Barbara Griffin is from Goffstown.

The House Election Law Committee approved a proposal on Wednesday that would create separate processes for state and federal elections, in response to federal voting reform currently before the U.S. Congress.

In a vote along party lines, the House panel approved the amendment, 11-8. The amendment was added to Senate Bill 89, bipartisan omnibus legislation dealing with election law, which was also approved along party lines. 

Opponents say that having two separate processes would cause confusion among voters and double the workload of local election officials, while proponents are billing it as an issue of local control to push back on what they see as federal overreach. Both sides say cost is an issue, but the amendment did not include a fiscal note with additional details. 

The amendment was introduced last week by Rep. Barbara Griffin, a Goffstown Republican. On Wednesday, there was a public hearing with the most people signed up to testify before the Election Law Committee so far this session. The vote on the amendment was held on the same day as the public hearing.

Similar legislation was introduced in Texas, House Bill 4507, which would have required separate registration for state and federal elections. That effort was defeated in the Republican-controlled House. Currently, there are no states with a two-tier voting or registration system.   

Kyri Claflin, a supervisor of the checklist in Concord Ward 5, called the proposal a “nightmare” for election officials.

“The amendment doubles the work for election officials because you would have one set of laws and procedures that apply to federal elections and a second set of laws and procedures that apply to local and state elections,” Claflin said during a press conference held by the For the People Act New Hampshire Coalition before the hearing.

Claflin said the amendment would create “an unworkable situation” for local election officials. 

“Confusion is a tool to keep people away from the polls,” said Elizabeth Corell, a ward supervisor of the checklist in Concord. Corell said the procedure manual is already 380 pages, and having two checklists would be “mind-boggling and quite frustrating.”

“We do this because we care, but the harder you make it the harder it will be to find people like us to carry out this job,” she said. 

Rep. Timothy Horrigan, a Durham Democrat, called the amendment “massively premature” since the federal legislation has not yet been approved. 

But the proposal has the support of the Secretary of State’s Office, which hosted a controversial briefing on the For the People Act last month. Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan expressed his support for the amendment, testifying on behalf of the office.

Scanlan called the For the People Act a “federal takeover of the state election process.” He said the problems the For the People Act sets out to address – onerous voter identification requirements, burdensome voter registration procedures, limited and unequal access to voting by mail, and polling place closures, among others – aren’t problems that exist in New Hampshire.

But Rep. Manny Espitia, a Nashua Democrat, testified that there are voters in New Hampshire who have been turned away to vote, such as newly naturalized citizens who were told they needed to have the precise date of their naturalization in order to register. Espitia said that misinformation prevented them from registering and subsequently voting. 

“Because of that, they were denied the right to vote,” Espitia said during the hearing.

Scanlan said the federal legislation raised concerns about ballot harvesting, and that it could make it more difficult to maintain accurate checklists of eligible voters.

“I think this amendment fires a shot across the bow to Congress about the wisdom of passing such legislation that would be a federal takeover of our election,” Scanlan told the House panel on Wednesday. 

Olivia Zink, the executive director of Open Democracy, called the For the People Act the largest election reform in the past 50 years, and said the measures were “common-sense standards,” such as same-day voter registration and online voter registration.

In Wednesday’s executive session, the House Election Law committee also voted down a Republican-sponsored online voter information portal, part of Senate Bill 83. That proposal would have allowed voters to update their registration, file a new registration, or request an absentee ballot.

“Today was a loss for voters and for local election officials and for the health of our democracy,” said Lucas Meyer, chairman of 603 Forward.

“It isn’t every day in New Hampshire that you get bipartisan agreement on modernization reforms for our elections, so to see the House recklessly vote these bills down is concerning for the future of our ability in the Legislature for folks to come together to get things done,” Meyer said.

The proposals will now be voted on in the House.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.