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Absentee ballot requests are up, but that option isn't open to everybody

By Erik Eisele
CONWAY — Aggressive efforts by both parties to push absentee voting have election officials scrambling to process a spike in absentee ballot requests.

The campaign efforts have also raised concerns that some voters ineligible for absentee ballots are asking for them anyway.
New Hampshire, unlike some states, does not allow early voting. Absentee ballots are available to residents who can't make it to the polls on voting day due to either a disability, a work or religious obligation or because they will not be in the area. Otherwise residents are expected to show up in person on election day.
Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, however, have been sending out mailers encouraging their supporters to register for absentee voting. The mailers include language some officials call "questionable."
"Absentee voting is easy, convenient, secure, and most of all, important," a mailer from the Obama campaign says.
"Important vote-by-mail application enclosed," a mailer from the New Hampshire Republican State Committee says. "Don't take Obamacare lying down...complete your vote-by-mail application today."
The result? Officials in Albany, Bartlett and Conway all reported spikes in absentee ballot requests.
Concerns over the motivation for the increase in requests have officials speaking out. Absentee voting is not about making the process more convenient, Conway town clerk Rhoda Quint said on Monday. Residents need to fit the criteria laid out in the law to be eligible to get an absentee ballot.
"New Hampshire is a vote-in-person state; we don't do early voting," she said. "It's not a vote of convenience."
In an important swing state like New Hampshire, however, campaigns that can secure votes early have that many fewer supporters to worry about motivating on election day. In states where early voting is allowed, the parties often push loyalists to cast ballots before the polls even open. The question is whether the campaigns are trying to do the same thing here in New Hampshire.
Both parties deny that charge. The Democrats used language taken from the state law "almost verbatim," said Harrell Kirstein, press secretary for Obama for America in New Hampshire. The campaign is chasing every vote it can, he said, but the mailer clearly outlines the eligibility requirements for absentee voting. They don't want anyone to ignore the law.
A spokesman for the Republican campaign, meanwhile, had a similar response.
"I know we're following the law right to the letter," said Tommy Schultz, communications director for the New Hampshire Republican National Committee Victory campaign. Republicans don't want people to ignore restrictions on absentee ballots, but they do want people to be aware it is an option if necessary. "We're simply asking the question," he said.
Officials rely on the honesty of voters in making absentee ballot requests. There are no checks on those who make a request and no enforcement mechanism to ensure voters who say they will be out of town on voting day actually are.
"There's where it gets sticky," Quint said — some people may not realize what they are doing is against the rules, and those who do face no consequences.
The names of absentee voters are a matter of public, but no one goes through the list to verify people are being honest when they vote by mail.
Early voting numbers, meanwhile, are of great importance to the presidential candidates. Just last week USA Today reported Romney and Obama campaign officials were trading jabs over the success of early voting drives around the country. Officials with the Romney campaign specifically pointed to their efforts in four swing states, including New Hampshire, to rebut claims the Obama campaign was winning the early voting game.
In 2008, the year of the last presidential election, Conway processed 1,000 absentee ballots, according to Quint, which represented roughly 20 percent of the total votes cast. "As of Friday we had 305 requests," she said on Monday, and the election is still three weeks away.
"I believe part of this is tied to the voter ID laws," she said, since absentee ballots avoid the identification restrictions of election day voting, but "I could be wrong." But there is no doubt, she said, that "the parties are pushing it."
Madison, meanwhile, is looking at similar numbers to 2008, according to town clerk Marcia Shackford, but "Nov. 5 at 5 p.m. is a long way off."
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