New Hampshire towns are lagging on providing accessible voting machines. This bill could help.

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 03-31-2024 5:03 PM

At his town election this month, Andrew Harmon faced a realization: He knew someone on the ballot. In fact, he’d gone to high school with him.

But for the New Hampton resident, what might have been a common, small-town occurrence became a minor problem.

Harmon, who is legally blind, was not voting with pen and paper. He was sitting with a town election official in an enclosed tent, dictating his choices aloud to the official, who was marking the ballot. And his former classmate was somewhere outside of that tent, there in the polling place — possibly within earshot.

Embarrassed, Harmon told the official his choice. “When we got to that part of the ballot, I was like, ‘Man, I hope he can’t hear me,’ ” Harmon recalled.

In most major New Hampshire elections, Harmon would not be in this situation. No official would join him in the voting booth, and he would not need to speak his choices aloud. Instead, Harmon would vote with a digital device designed for voters with disabilities. He would don a pair of headphones, listen to a tablet computer read his choices aloud, tap a key on a keyboard to choose a candidate, listen as his choices were confirmed, and walk out of the tent with a freshly printed ballot with his choices filled in.

But in local elections, the system is more primitive.

New Hampshire’s Secretary of State’s Office provides specialized machines to cities and towns to assist voters with disabilities on Election Day. But following a longstanding policy, the office provides the machines to polling places only for federal and state elections.

For local elections, such as town meeting or municipal contests for mayor and city council, the cities and towns do not have access to the state’s machines. And most cities and towns don’t have their own. Voters with disabilities must either vote with the help of an aide or family member or vote with the assistance of a moderator or poll worker.

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Only two New Hampshire municipalities, Concord and Exeter, have accessible voting machines of their own. Both acquired theirs only after facing legal challenges from voters with disabilities.

“Manchester had a mayoral election this past fall,” said Karen Rosenberg, the policy director at the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center. “And for people who couldn’t fill in the circles, if they wanted to vote, they’d have to share with someone who it is that they were voting for.

“That is very uncomfortable for someone to have to do,” she continued. “And basically, it’s discriminatory because people who don’t experience a print disability and are not blind or visually impaired don’t have to share their private voting information with anybody. They just go and vote.”

This year, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is seeking to end the problem and force cities and towns to acquire the machines — one way or another.

House Bill 1264 would require towns and cities to provide accessible voting systems in local elections that meet the Help America Vote Act of 2002 as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act. Those machines would need to have the capacity to accept the choices of the voter and print out a paper ballot filled in with those choices for the voter to then cast, the bill states.

The bill would effectively “enable access to voting for individuals with disabilities during elections by giving them the same degree of privacy that is accorded to nondisabled voters,” a summary from the Secretary of State’s Office reads.

Disability rights advocates have long called for either cities and towns to acquire the machines or for the Secretary of State’s Office to share the ones it already has. That office has said that providing the machines for local elections is impractical because the tablets in each machine would need to be individually programmed according to each town’s warrant and that the office does not have the time or resources to do it.

Sponsored by Rep. Mark Paige, an Exeter Democrat, the bill creates a mandate for towns but does not explicitly state how they might meet that mandate or acquire the machines. But advocates say they envision two phases.

First, the bill creates a pilot program where the Secretary of State’s Office is required to “provide” the machines to the towns for any elections between Jan. 1 and June 30 of next year. Paige and other supporters say that would likely entail the Secretary of State’s Office sharing the machines it already has and allowing them to be programmed for local elections.

Second, Paige and other lawmakers say they will work to set aside money in the state budget next year to pay for cities and towns to acquire the machines themselves. Local officials would then use a vendor to program the machines — without the involvement of the Secretary of State’s Office.

The bill received a unanimous recommendation from the House Election Law Committee and passed the full House on a voice vote last week; it heads next to the Senate.

For municipalities, the threat of litigation is very real. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating a Concord resident’s complaint that the city had failed to provide accessible voting machines during its municipal elections. The voter claimed the city was violating Title II of the ADA, and the federal department, following a program known as ADA Voting Initiative, pursued the claim. The city came to a settlement agreement in February 2019 in which the city agreed to acquire the accessible voting machines, avoiding the potential for costly litigation.

A similar situation played out in Exeter, where Jean Shiner, a local resident, raised concerns about the lack of machines in 2022, according to the Disability Rights Center. Facing the possibility of litigation, the town moved to buy machines of its own; they debuted in March 2023.

But in most cities and towns, voters with disabilities are not given the same accommodations, advocates say.

“It’s honestly quite baffling to me why it hasn’t been available,” Harmon said.

Voting rights advocates have pressed the Secretary of State’s Office to change its policies for years. But Secretary of State Dave Scanlan has followed the policy first established by his predecessor, Bill Gardner, and maintains that the state does not have the resources to share the machines.

In an interview, Scanlan noted that the state is required by federal law to provide the machines for any election for federal office. That includes every November general election, every presidential primary, and every September state primary, which typically features party primaries for the state’s two congressional seats. The state also voluntarily shares the machines for any special elections when a state legislative seat becomes vacant.

Coordinating the programming of the machines for those elections is already difficult, Scanlan said. There is less than two months between the September primary and the November general election, during which each of the state’s polling locations must return the accessible voting tablets to the Secretary of State’s Office, which must then pass them to a vendor to reprogram them to reflect the general election ballots.

Then the Secretary of State’s Office must test each machine to make sure the audio instructions for each candidate race are correct and that the machine will make the right selections when a voter pushes a button. There are 309 polling stations in the state, and with 400 seats in the House of Representatives, each ballot is slightly different and must be individually vetted, Scanlan said.

To Scanlan, attempting to fold in every annual town and city election to that calendar would not be feasible. The only long-term solution, he argues, is for towns and cities to acquire the machines themselves.

“It’s a very challenging issue because of the nature of the different types of local elections,” he said. “And … no matter what we do, it’s going to continue to be a work in progress.”

Under HB 1264, municipalities will not need to do so immediately, Paige says. He is hoping the transition pilot period, where the Secretary of State’s Office will share its machines, will buy time next year. And he argued that the town meeting season of 2025 would be an ideal time to try that approach because there will not be a presidential primary, a state primary, or a general election to complicate plans.

Once the state gets to budget negotiations next year, Paige estimates that the price tag to acquire machines for every city and town will not exceed $250,000. Under the likely final agreement, municipalities would be responsible for paying for a vendor to program those machines for local elections. The Secretary of State’s Office would continue to provide its separate machines in all other elections.

“The hope is that this is really small potatoes in a whole large budget for a fundamental right of voting,” said Paige. “So the hope is this won’t be a heavy lift.”

To Harmon, any plan to install the machines for local elections is overdue. For years, he has voted in state and federal elections with the use of headphones and tablets. And for years, he says, he has asked his town to also provide them in March.

“I’ve gotten all sorts of different answers over the years, but they all boil down to basically: ‘It’s not something we can do,’ ” he said.