In the battle over the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on election rules, some Republicans have taken the implicit position that voters just need to suck it up and trudge to the polls on Election Day despite the health risks, or forfeit their access to the franchise. That was certainly what Wisconsin Republicans seemed to be suggesting in blocking liberalized voting by mail and insisting on mid-pandemic in-person voting.
But there is another path for those wedded to restrictions on voting by mail, as illustrated by Republican leaders in New Hampshire, a state famously hostile under GOP management to any kind of liberalized voting rules. Secretary of State William Gardner explained it in an interview this week with WMUR:
“If we’re in the situation we’re in right now, no person would have to fear for the health and safety by personally showing up and voting, and we don’t need legislation to do that …”
A portion of the state’s current absentee ballot law states that people can vote absentee “by reason of physical disability.”
Gardner suggested that the provision would allow for absentee voting by people who would not, under normal circumstances, be eligible for absentee voting.
“If doctors at the federal level say don’t go out because it’s a risk to your health and you should protect your health and safety – and going out would be harmful – that would be the basis for it,” Gardner said.
In other words, says Gardner, the pandemic would serve as a temporary “disability” for voters who could ask for an absentee ballot without any changes in the state’s very restrictive voting laws.
Republican governor Chris Sununu, who has been a staunch warrior for restrictive voting rules in the fight to keep college students from fully participating in New Hampshire elections, confirmed that he supported Gardner’s take:
Sununu noted, as both he and Gardner did on Wednesday, that Gardner and the attorney general’s office will soon release a guidance memorandum that addresses voting during the coronavirus outbreak.
“Number one, the ability for folks to vote absentee if they so choose, based on the COVID-19 epidemic, and our state has an immense amount of flexibility,” Sununu said.
“Basically, if you feel more comfortable voting absentee because of the outbreak, or your inability, or nervousness just about appearing in person to vote, you can vote absentee and obtain an absentee ballot. So, we have a very flexible system.”
Turns out all 16 states that require an excuse for receiving and casting an absentee ballot list physical disability as a sanctioned reason for voting by mail. Some even mention “temporary” disability. But under New Hampshire’s approach, anyone in the country could vote absentee if they knew about this loophole, requested an absentee ballot, and submitted it by mail or in person. That’s obviously not a substitute for a system in which all registered voters get a ballot without having to apply for it or articulate an excuse. But it could provide a way for Republicans to break with the absurd Trumpian argument that voting by mail is inherently fraudulent, without permanently changing voting laws. It’s certainly better than insisting on a choice of life and health versus democracy.