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LET’S MAKE SURE GRANITE STATERS CAN VOTE SAFELY DURING THE PANDEMIC (AARP NH Op Ed)

This Op Ed was written by AARP New Hampshire State Director Todd Fahey and submitted to NH newspapers on May 29, 2020.

A global pandemic threatens to stand between Granite Staters and the ballot box. We should have none of it.

State officials must take all action needed to help voters stay safe while exercising their right to vote.

AARP New Hampshire supports two broad measures to ensure safety while protecting everyone’s right to vote. First, we support absentee ballot measures. Older Granite Staters shouldn’t have to risk their lives or health to vote. We recommend the state take all necessary steps to send an absentee ballot to all registered voters. This would be useful for those in long-term care, medical facilities, or virus quarantine. It is simpler than what currently exists during a time when people are already burdened. Second, we encourage safer polling for those who choose or need to vote in person.

So, let’s make voting simple this election. One easy way to encourage folks to vote by absentee ballot would be to have the state mail all registered voters an absentee ballot – postage paid. This ensures the state is prepared, no matter the situation this fall, to avoid putting poll workers and voters at risk. We have the time – and the money – to do this. And we’d not be the only state to vote by mail.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), five states conduct all elections entirely by mail (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington State, and Utah). At least another 21 allow voting by mail in some elections. NCSL cites reports that vote-by-mail elections increase turnout. Sending absentee ballots to registered voters for this year’s election would require the state to be prepared to print, distribute, collect, and count more absentee ballots than traditionally expected in presidential election years.

Doing this won’t be perfect, but perfection and pandemic don’t go hand in hand. If our voting laws need temporary amendment to enable Secretary Gardner to mail absentee ballots, then surely Governor Sununu could issue another Emergency Order enabling (if not requiring) the Secretary to do so. These are extraordinary times. The perfect must not become the enemy of the good.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data for the 2016 presidential election, 71 percent of Americans over the age of 65 voted – that’s compared with just 46 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds. More than 382,000 Granite Staters over 50 voted in the 2016 general election. Older voters are the nation’s most reliable voting bloc. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports people over 60 years of age, and those with serious health conditions, are at highest risk for severe disease and death from coronavirus-related illness. Risks of illness and death increases with age. As one of the nation’s oldest states, we have hundreds of thousands of older voters. Let’s help them vote.

Residents are scheduled to vote on November 3rd, following the September 8th primary. While we hope this crisis has abated by then, it’s prudent for New Hampshire to be prepared to conduct an election that will be affected by social distancing practices – practices which are incompatible with standing in long voting lines. To protect voters and election officials at polling stations, we should begin developing alternative means now for voting that does not require physically going to the polls. AARP New Hampshire recently made this recommendation to a Special Committee convened to advise Secretary Gardner. That committee, among other things, is charged with making recommendations about how to spend some $3.4 million in CARES Act funding. We have the money. Now we need the will and temerity to act.

If New Hampshire sends absentee ballots to all registered voters, we still need to maintain polling places for those who need assistance or choose to vote in person. The following polling location modifications should be made to maintain voter health and safety:

1. Extend early voting to include Saturday and Sundays,

2. Ensure poll workers have all needed personal protective equipment (PPE),

3. Provide anti-bacterial wipes to all sites,

4. Provide single-use pens/pencils,

5. Spread out voters as they wait to cast their ballot,

6. Spread out voting booths to ensure social distancing,

7. Provide needed sanitation equipment,

8. Provide drop boxes for completed absentee ballots and/or encourage drive-by voting, and

9. Publicize these measures through a series of public service announcements (beginning months in advance) to make voters aware of these safety measures and voting options.

These are challenging times for Granite Staters. As we look to our elected officials for leadership, we at AARP will fight to ensure that our largest voting bloc - the 50+ voter - can safely and securely exercise their right to vote. Simply send out absentee ballots to all voters. Make our polling places safe and accessible. Let’s advocate together for the safety and rights of our friends, neighbors, colleagues and loved ones.

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