NH Secretary of State prefers minor move of state primary date

Jan. 17—CONCORD — Secretary of State David Scanlan has come out in opposition to moving the state's primary to June, with officials saying he prefers to move it just a few weeks ahead of its current September date.

New Hampshire's state primary last Sept. 13 was the latest in the country, along with Delaware and Rhode Island.

House Majority Floor Leader Joseph Sweeney, R-Salem, said moving New Hampshire's state primary up three months (HB 115) would give the nominees of both major parties time to wage a longer general election campaign, which would benefit voters.

"This would allow both parties and their nominees to unite and get into gear for the stretch run from Labor Day into the fall," Sweeney told the House Election Laws Committee Tuesday.

The seven-week general election campaign amounts to "incumbent protection," giving a lesser-known or poorly financed challenger little time to stage an upset, he said.

But Senior Deputy of State Patricia Lovejoy said the only change Scanlan would like is to move the election up a few weeks to deal with new post-election requirements.

A law put into place last year requires the state to conduct random audits after the primary to check the accuracy of ballot-counting machines.

Federal law also requires the state to ensure that absentee ballots are sent out to overseas residents or soldiers at least 45 days before each election.

State election officials last year were able to meet the federal standard, but Lovejoy said moving the primary up a few weeks could make things run more smoothly.

"We had a lot of activity leading (up to) the last primary, and our preference would be to move it forward a few weeks" into late August, Lovejoy said.

If the Legislature preferred to set a June primary, however, Lovejoy said Scanlan's office could make it work.

August primary vetoed in 2021

Ironically, former Secretary of State Bill Gardner's opposition helped convince Gov. Chris Sununu in 2021 to veto a bipartisan bill to move the state primary up a month to the second Tuesday in August.

Both Sununu and Gardner concluded that an early August primary would hurt voter turnout and would have made it more difficult for city and town officials to get enough poll workers to volunteer during the summer vacation season.

State Rep. Timothy Horrigan, D-Durham, said he supports the September primary because it gives new candidates more time to acquaint themselves with voters in their own party.

"The fair thing is to keep the calendar more or less where it is," Horrigan said.

The House panel also took testimony on an even more dramatic change (HB 333), which would move the primary up to March on the traditional Town Meeting Day.

Sweeney wrote this bill as well, which would create a runoff election in May for governor or federal office if no primary candidate got at least 50% of the vote.

He asked the House committee to retain this bill to work on it further this summer and fall.

Lovejoy said Scanlan didn't like moving the state primary to March because state and federal issues would overwhelm voter attention, which should be on local matters at that time of the year.

The House also heard supporters and opponents of legislation to have New Hampshire join Maine, Alaska and about 20 communities across the country that have ranked-choice voting (HB 350).

This reform permits voters to prioritize their choices for an office and counts all the ballots cast for each candidate as the first, second or third choice on the ballot.

Lovejoy said ranked-choice voting and a runoff election here could be in conflict with the New Hampshire Constitution, which in three places states that all elections are won by candidates who win a "plurality" and not a majority of ballots cast.

"We aren't stating a legal opinion," Lovejoy said. "We are just raising a constitutional concern."

A runoff or ranked choice system also would end the state's tradition of reporting election results promptly, she said.

"We oppose any legislation that would not allow us to know the result of an election on Election Night," Lovejoy said.

klandrigan@unionleader.com