Panel combines voting machine grants with election portal

Apr. 19—CONCORD — A proposal to permit cities and towns to ask for federal money to replace their antiquated voting machines moved a step closer to reality this week.

The plan would permit local officials to apply to Secretary of State David Scanlan's office to get grants from $12.8 million in federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) money the state has gotten over the past two decades to make voting system improvements.

Last week, House Election Laws Committee Chairman Ross Berry, R-Manchester, proposed tacking this proposal onto a Senate-passed bill (SB 70) that would create a state information portal to allow citizens to register online to vote more easily, to update their voter information or to request absentee ballots.

The House panel voted 13-5 in support of that measure, which now goes to the full House of Representatives.

The state Senate had earlier killed separate legislation (SB 73) to permit the use of HAVA money for voting machines while Berry's House committee had decided to retain its own legislation on the topic (HB 447) until early in 2024.

Berry said he had a change of heart upon learning the state was spending more from the HAVA grant than it was earning each year in interest from the money.

The current state law does not allow spending any more than 1/12th of the HAVA money in a single year; this proposal would remove that restriction.

Election reform advocates pleased with the vote

A voting rights advocate praised the committee's decision.

"Forty-two other states have a system where a voter can register to vote online or update their voter information online. An election information portal gives voters another easier, safe and secure option to register to vote, while minimizing clerical errors caused by poor handwriting or data that was inputted incorrectly," McKenzie St. Germain, director of the New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights, said in a statement.

The Ballot Law Commission is expected later this year to approve different vendors to offer cities and towns replacement technology for the AccuVote machines, the vote-counting device exclusively allowed for use in New Hampshire in communities that don't count ballots by hand.

The AccuVote machine is no longer made and local officials have had difficulty in recent elections obtaining replacement parts for them.

Last week, Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester, and a leader on this topic, said the Senate continues to oppose using HAVA money on new voting machine equipment.

In the past, Scanlan has said he would rather keep the HAVA money to make statewide improvements for voting.

He told House budget writers they could choose to use state general fund money to make voting machine grants.

Berry noted that the Republican-led House in past years had rejected approving separate legislation to create the election portal and this combination bill could allow both issues to become a reality.