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Bracing for a wave of write-ins and other potential curveballs, NH poll workers prep for Primary Day 2024

Voter registration at Durham. 500 new registered voters so far.
Jordyn Haime
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NHPR File Photo
Durham, home of the University of New Hampshire, usually sees a lot of student voters. (Here, volunteers are processing new registrants in the 2020 primary.) But this year's primary, on Jan. 23, falls on the first day of the spring semester, making it hard to predict how many students may swing by the polls.

Election officials aren’t just stocking up on ballots, Sharpies and newly redesigned “I Voted” stickers for the upcoming presidential primary. They’re also stockpiling poll workers.

In Keene, the city is more than doubling its roster of election volunteers, from 70 to 150 people.

“We reached out to the Chamber of Commerce, various large businesses downtown that often allow their employees to do a day for civic service,” Keene City Clerk Patricia Little said of her recruitment efforts.

The workload is expected to be heavier this year in large part due to an influx of write-in votes on the Democratic side, since President Joe Biden declined to add his name to the New Hampshire primary ballot. But there are other considerations — like a new voter ID law for first-time registrants, new election technology in some towns and heightened scrutiny on the election process in general.

It’s not clear how long the counting process will take this year, nor how busy polling places themselves will be on Jan. 23. The New Hampshire Attorney General and Secretary of State announced last week that polling locations will be permitted to announce the results of the Republican primary before tallying is complete for the Democratic results, "provided the results are complete and the moderator is comfortable that appropriate reconciliation has taken place for that party."

Still, given the uncertainties in this election cycle, town officials are stressing the need for patience at the polls — and into the evening — as the votes are tallied.

“Our election volunteers are regular citizens, just like the rest of us, and they're there all day long,” said Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig. “You know, eating just so-so food in a cold gymnasium. Please try to make their lives as easy as possible because they're doing an important civic service.”

Read the full 2024 New Hampshire primary memo from state officials here.


Another test for affidavit ballots

An image of a sample election ballot
Todd Bookman
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NHPR
Sample ballots for the 2024 New Hampshire Presidential Primary are on display at Durham Town Hall.

Along with the unknowns surrounding write-in votes, New Hampshire election officials are also preparing for any possible complications surrounding the state's new affidavit ballot law.

The primary will mark the first statewide election where voters who register at the polls for the first time without valid identification will use special, marked ballots. If they don't return proof of eligibility to the Secretary of State's office within seven days, their votes could be removed from the final tally.

Moderators told NHPR they have been given detailed guidance by the state on how to process any affidavit ballots. The state has also issued guidance on interpreting messy handwriting or misspellings for voters who chose to write-in Biden.

For his part, the state’s top election official, Secretary of State David Scanlan, said in a recent WMUR interview he believes the cities and towns are well-prepared to handle the upcoming primary, when for a brief window the political eyes of the world are on New Hampshire.

In previous guidance released to voting officials, the secretary of state gave examples of variations of the name "George Washington" to help instruct local officials on how to determine if a write-in vote for a candidate should count.

“The general rule on that is that the moderator is tasked with determining the intent of the voter,” said Stratham Town Moderator David Emanuel.

Stratham is one of the communities that have been scrambling to line up more poll workers for the primary; 10 extra residents have been tapped to be on hand during election night.

“We did some drills last night to make sure that we're all on the same page,” Emanuel said in a recent interview, "that we're following the direction by the Secretary of State and Attorney General.”

He said his bigger fear for the upcoming election isn’t deciphering someone’s cursive in the write-in category. Instead, he's concerned about a perennial point of confusion on primary day: voters who request to switch their party affiliation at the polls, even though the deadline for switching parties was months ago.

“We do not have the liberty of changing parties,” he said. “You have to wait till after you voted, and that really makes some people upset.”


Keeping lines moving

A long line of cars leading to the polling place in Derry
Mara Hoplamazian
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NHPR
Some voters got stuck in a traffic jam heading to Derry's polling place during the 2022 midterms. This year, the town is voting in a new location and hopes to avoid the same delays.

In Derry, town clerk Christina Guilford said they are preparing to process up to 20,000 voters — one of the busiest polling places in the state. During the 2022 midterm elections, some local voters got stuck in long lines of traffic — prompting election officials to extend polling hours to allow anyone waiting in their cars to cast a ballot.

For the presidential primary, Derry is using a new polling place, Pinkerton Academy, and Guilford said they will operate with about 100 poll workers.

“We decided that we are just preparing for 100% voter turnout from now on. That's our modus operandi,” Guilford said. “It actually makes life a little bit easier, because you don't have to play that guessing game of how many people do you think we're gonna have and how many people do you think we need to go to staff these big elections.”

On primary day, Derry will use 18 different voter check-in stations. The town switched to using electronic tablets instead of paper checklists in 2022, which has sped up the process. Because paper checklists were divided based on different sections of the alphabet, a voter might get stuck in a long line if a lot of other voters with similar names showed up at the same time. With the new system, a voter can check in at any station, because the electronic checklists contain all registered voters’ names.

'We decided that we are just preparing for 100% voter turnout from now on.'
Derry Town Clerk Christina Guilford

Keene is trying out that same technology for the first time this year. Little, the city clerk, said she suspects it will make things more efficient, but it has come with a learning curve.

“We've had to increase our staff to manage that sort of ramification for this new technology,” she said. “The state is requiring that we sort of still maintain the paper [checklist]. So we're doing it two ways.”

Little said Keene is essentially preparing for two primaries: one for Democrats and one for Republicans.

“It's double the paperwork, double the ballot and sort of double the processes for many of the steps,” Little said.

In Durham, home of the University of New Hampshire, approximately 60 volunteers will help to greet, register and ultimately compile the votes of an expected 8,000 to 10,000 voters. Selig, who has been town manager there for 23 years, said they're using about the same number of election workers as usual.

“It's, in essence, a one-question ballot,” Selig said. “So it will certainly slow things down a little. But it shouldn't be that much of a lift for us.”

Selig said this year’s primary happens to fall on the first day of the university's spring semester, making it hard to predict how many students may swing by the polls.

“A best case scenario? We'd be done [counting] by 9 p.m.,” he said. “Worst case, it'll be 11 p.m. That's my guess.”

While some towns and cities are putting out their own calls for additional help, voting advocacy groups are also spreading the message.

America Votes New Hampshire has been connecting potential volunteers with town clerks and moderators to help with staffing. McKenzie St. Germain, the group’s voting rights campaign director, said anyone with a special language skill — like fluency in Spanish — would be a great candidate.

“Those types of skills are also really helpful in making sure that every voter has a positive voting experience and is able to be supported through that process,” she said.

Olivia joins us from WLVR/Lehigh Valley Public Media, where she covered the Easton area in eastern Pennsylvania. She has also reported for WUWM in Milwaukee and WBEZ in Chicago.
Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.