Poll Dancing

Is change required to keep elections pure?



illustration by victoria marcelino

This month, New Hampshire voters will at last head to the polls to decide one of the most bizarre and hotly contested elections in recent memory. Voters in the bustling White Mountains community of Littleton, with a population of nearly 6,000, will walk by a gaggle of corralled candidates and their sign-holding surrogates and filter into the empty fire station.

They used to vote in the beautiful old Opera House downtown, but when it was condemned, civic engagement was moved to the new, utilitarian and somewhat-drab town building. Years later, when the Opera House was fully restored, the voting stayed put, bowing to the newer, easier tradition.

Change — like the voters and the politicians themselves — comes and goes, but in Littleton one thing remains the same: Gerald Winn. For the past five decades, he has run the town’s elections as its biennial elected town moderator. This makes him the longest-serving moderator in the state, according to New Hampshire’s top election official, Secretary of State Bill Gardner. Gardner, by the way, is no newcomer himself — he was first elected in 1976 and is the country’s most senior secretary of state.

Winn is a figure of fairness. The courtly, silver-haired auto mechanic-turned-real-estate-firm-owner is a disciple of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” author Dale Carnegie. He worked for Carnegie as a professional trainer and was mentioned in one of his motivational books. Winn gets high praise for his evenhandedness almost to the point of being uninterested in the outcome. He declines to support candidates, sign petitions or speak out publicly about political issues.

Winn has seen many changes since his first election back in 1966 when he beat out a local high school teacher, Richard Bouley — who went on to be a top aide to Gov. Hugh Gallen and then (and still) a prominent lobbyist.

During Winn’s tenure, he’s seen suffrage expand to include 18- to 20-year-olds and witnessed the end of the literacy testing that kept the less academically competent off the voting rolls. He’s also witnessed how voting rights were expanded after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed in the ’60s, and, more recently, the countertrend to combat concerns over voter fraud by enacting, among other things, a photo ID requirement.

For the voting consumer, the process is fairly routine and a bit dated (there are no online forms, for example, and early voting is restricted). The mechanical act of voting is a three-step process: Get your name on the checklist as a “duly qualified voter”; then there comes the detailed, cumbersome and sacred process of casting a secret ballot; and finally the preservation and counting of the ballots.

Each step in the voting process is regulated by either state or federal law. As Gary Richardson — attorney, longtime moderator, state legislator and Ballot Law Commissioner — says, “There’s almost nothing you can do on your own.”

In part, this is because New Hampshire is not a home-rule state. In home-rule states, cities, municipalities and counties have the ability to pass laws to govern themselves, so long as they obey the state and federal constitutions.

Occasionally, the federal government has interceded to ensure justice or at least better access. Disenfranchising, discouraging or outright prohibiting some people (such as felons) from voting was common in our country’s history as an effective way to ensure the political dominance of a particular group. In the past, voting in New Hampshire was strictly limited to men who owned land and belonged to a certain religion. And, since juries are selected from registered voters, this dominance spilled over into the judicial process. 

In fact, 10 Granite State communities were put on the anti-discrimination watch list by the federal government in the 1960s — along with some of the most abusive counties in the South — based on seriously low voter participation. Presumably, low turnout (population versus voter participation) was an indicator of voter suppression, but, according to Gardner, it missed the fact that many of these small communities had colleges that skewed their numbers. Eventually, after years of monitoring, the towns were cleared of any suspicion.

New Hampshire has a deep-rooted democratic culture that has grown out of the Colonial-era town meeting process. New Hampshire instituted the first direct primary vote allowing the people, not political leaders, to pick the party’s nominees. And, of course, this grew into the internationally known first presidential primary, where the Granite State kicks off the presidential contest. Probably the most sweeping change occurred in the 1990s, when the federal government put pressure on states to make voting easier by passing same-day voter registration. Prior to that, the access point was closed days prior to Election Day.

Each year, dozens of bills are proposed to tweak the election process. The most recent hot-button topics are the so-called “ballot selfie” law and establishing the voting requirement to be either “residency” or “domicile.”

Last year, the state Supreme Court struck down the 2012 state law that required voters be state residents, not just domiciled here, in order to vote. A standard of residency would have required a person to intend to live in the state for the “indefinite future,” and would exclude out-of-state college students, as well as others who may live here for the time being.

The Federal Appeals Court just recently knocked down the state’s law that prohibited taking photos of ballots at the polls, saying that it violated free speech. The state argued that it eroded the secret ballot and it could be evidence for vote-buying or bullying. The next step, if there is one, is to the US Supreme Court.  

For Gerald Winn and many of the voters in Littleton and across New Hampshire, voting is more personal than ideological. “People like to have their voice heard,” Winn says. The process is more important than the results. “The purity of the election,” he adds, “is the overriding goal.”

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