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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Officials looking to September primary as practice run for new voter ID law

Here’s the main thing to know about having voter ID to cast a ballot in the Sept. 11 primary: You don’t need one.

Under the much- discussed new state law, poll workers will ask for identification, but it’s optional. If a voter doesn’t want to provide identification, poll workers will point to information about future changes in voter ID laws and hand over a ballot, and the wheels of democracy will spin.

No voter ID will be necessary at the general election in November, either.

As with all information about this contentious issue, things are a bit uncertain. The federal Department of Justice hasn’t yet ruled whether New Hampshire’s voter ID laws are acceptable, although since it has given the thumbs-up to laws in other states that are more strict, that isn’t likely to be an obstacle.

Other uncertainties are likely to be more of an issue, including how voters will behave.

Fortunately for election workers, next month’s party primary is expected, like most primaries, to have a pretty low turnout. That makes it a good practice field, so to speak.

“We’re going to go through an exercise during the primary, as clerks try to get a handle on how many voters come through without an acceptable form of ID,” said Dave Scanlon, New Hampshire deputy secretary of state. “Is it 1 percent, 10 percent? We really don’t know.”

This number is important because in November, voters who don’t provide an ID must fill out a “challenged voter affidavit” form with their contact information. Within 90 days, the state will have to write a letter to every such voter, who will then have to write back to confirm they did, in fact, vote.

If the voter doesn’t respond, the state will have to investigate.

Since at least 600,000 people are likely to vote in November’s presidential election, a 10 percent ID refusal rate could produce the logistical nightmare of having to hunt down 60,000 people.

So hopefully people will present IDs. But then the question is: What’s an ID?

Driver’s license, passport, military ID and valid school ID (even without a photo) are on the list.

But state law says the Department of Motor Vehicles will provide a voting-only ID card for residents who don’t have a driver’s license.

This is separate from the non-driving ID card the state already provides, often used by elderly people who have stopped driving but still need photo identification. Among other things, Scanlon says the voting ID won’t include birth date, which means it can’t be used to buy alcohol.

So far, however, the state DMV hasn’t created such an ID card.

“To my knowledge, it has not been done yet,” said Jim Van Dongen, spokesman for the state DMV. “A lot of this has to be worked out.”

Helping everybody figure this out is no easy task. The secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections, among other things, is holding a series of workshops for clerks, moderators and others who will have to answer voters’ questions come polling day.

“We’re drawing huge crowds,” Scanlon said. “In Keene, we expected 100 people and more than 200 showed up. We had a similar experience in Grantham.”

Voters may be less confused, although that just may reflect the scant attention given to politics in August.

“There have been a few inquiries, but it hasn’t been overwhelming,” said Diane Trippett, town clerk in Merrimack.

More questions are coming up in that town about the change in polling places, since there is now just one voting place rather than the three that used to exist.

Even when the full law goes into effect in November 2013 – assuming nothing changes when the new Legislature is seated, which is far from clear – not everybody will need an ID. The law allows religious exemptions, and no ID is needed if you get an absentee ballot.

And no ID is needed if you’re familiar with the poll workers, since “verification of identity by a supervisor of the checklist, the moderator or the clerk” is identification enough, according to the law.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua telegraph.com. Also, follow him on Twitter at @GraniteGeek.