The Bulletin Board

Senate panel discusses voting rights for prisoners, campaign finance, absentee voting

By: - May 10, 2021 3:25 pm
State house dome

Bipartisan agreement on redistricting ran dry when it came to the House districts. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

On Monday, advocates and lawmakers debated proposals on voting rights for prisoners, reporting contributions to political committees, and procedures around absentee ballots during a hearing before the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee.  

House Bill 555 wouldn’t expand voting rights, but it would make it clear that people in penal institutions can vote by absentee ballot. New Hampshire law currently allows people who are awaiting trial or serving time for a misdemeanor to vote, but language in the voter application form and absentee voting affidavit can make it impossible for them to do so.

For example, if a resident was jailed in the same town where they live, they would have to lie on the part of the voter registration form that asks them to confirm that they will be outside of the city or town where they are domiciled.

The proposal would add language to the form for individuals who are incarcerated pre-trial or serving time for a misdemeanor.  

Henry Klementowicz, a staff attorney at the New Hampshire American Civil Liberties Union, spoke in strong support of the proposal. He called it a housekeeping bill.

“I view this bill as simply amending the form to conform with what has already been the law,” he said.

Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan agreed. He asked lawmakers to consolidate language on the form to ensure it would be readable.   

Political contributions

A proposal to increase the threshold for reporting by political committees was more divisive. Currently, any contribution over $25 is reported, including the name and postal address of the person making the contribution, as well as the date and amount received. House Bill 391 would increase the amount to $100, so that donations of up to $99 would not have to be recorded.

Brian Beihl, the deputy director of Open Democracy Action, spoke in opposition to the proposed change.  

Beihl said the proposal would open the door to dark money entering New Hampshire’s political system.

“If we really care about election integrity, we should leave the threshold for reporting contributions at $25,” said Beihl.

“A very conceivable loophole here is that 100 out-of-state union members are corporate employees contributing $99 each to support a candidate who might influence future legislation,” said Biehl. “One dollar here and one dollar there, and pretty soon you’re talking real dark money.”

Sen. Jim Gray, the committee chair, questioned Beihl about inflation since the $25 cap had first been implemented. Gray said he believed the $25 amount had been instated in 1997.

“The point is, and I’m trying to get you to comment on it, is that at some point if we have things that inflate in value, that if you’re going to have it be relative to what it was at any particular time, then that would have to increase,” said Gray.

Beihl said he thought the increase would allow the possibility of “thousands of people to flood our system with money that’s unaccountable.”

“We run the risk here, of opening up Pandora’s box of money coming into unaccountable money coming into our system,” Beihl said.

Absentee ballots

The senators also heard testimony on House Bill 326, which would require the town and city clerk to make electronic lists of people who have requested or returned absentee ballots. These lists would then be provided upon request.

While the prime sponsor of the bill was absent, Scanlan said he didn’t think the language of the bill would achieve its intended purpose. Scanlan said that clerks are already required to keep a list of voters who have requested an absentee ballot.

“I think the information that they provide is somewhat limited,” he said. The information they currently provide may not include when an absentee ballot is returned, for example.

There was more vocal opposition to House Bill 292 which aims to verify mail-in absentee voter applications by requiring a photo id, a notarized signature, or a signature match. Opponents said the measure would restrict absentee voting for the elderly.

The prime sponsor, Rep. Greg Hill, said the measure would prevent people from “stealing votes” if they were to identify people who weren’t voting in a given election and vote fraudulently using their names.

“No proof of identity is currently needed,” he said. “Clerks are unable to detect fraudulent activity.”

In most cases, a voter would already have to be registered in order to request an absentee ballot. If someone registers to vote by mail, they are required to provide supplemental documentation.

The senators asked Hill if he had reviewed Senate Bill 54, which included provisions like asking for either a driver’s license number of the last four digits of a voter’s Social Security number to tighten requirements for voting.

Hill said he would be “thrilled” with any level of identification being required.

Olivia Zink, the executive direction of Open Democracy Action, opposed the proposal, which she said would impact voters who live in a nursing home. These voters could have mobility issues that would prevent them from obtaining a photocopy of their identification or a notarized signature.

Zink said the signature match portion of the bill had been struck down by a federal judge because it could disenfranchise hundreds of New Hampshire voters.

Beyond the elderly, the bill could also impact younger residents who are hospitalized. A woman named MK Kilcoyne spoke against the bill. Kilcoyne, a cancer survivor, said that at one point she was hospitalized for over a month while receiving a stem cell transplant.

“I physically could not leave the hospital,” she said. “I would have loved to vote at that time, and no way I could comply to what was on this bill.”

Scanlan said that the bill didn’t appear to change the statutory process for absentee voting, but it would create an automatic process for verifying the ballot so that it would be counted on the day of the election.

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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.