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Turnout rises in Keene, across state in NH Democratic primary

Turnout in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential primary reached a record high, surpassing the votes cast in both 2016 and the high-water mark set in 2008.

Democratic ballots came to 300,622 this year, above the 250,983 cast in the 2016 Democratic primary and the 2008 count of 287,542 votes, according to data provided by the N.H. Secretary of State’s Office.

In percentage terms, turnout in the Democratic primary increased nearly 20 points, and in Keene the turnout rose even higher, with a 35 percent increaseover the 2016 Democratic primary — up from the 6,607 votes cast four years ago to 8,961 Tuesday.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won the contest statewide, with 25.7 percent of the vote, squeaking ahead of second and third place finishers former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who earned 24.4 and 19.8 percent.

Cheshire County voters cast their support for the winner at a higher rate than any other county in the state, with 31 percent of the Democratic vote going to Sanders. Sullivan County had the second highest rate of support for the neighboring senator, with 30 percent of the votes cast for Sanders.

Sanders’ camp released a statement Wednesday, attributing its victory and the high turnout to the campaign’s grassroots coalition.

“Our campaign is successfully reaching out to working people, young people, communities of color and all those who believe in a government of compassion and justice,” the statement read.

Young people, who exit polls showed made up 14 percent of the electorate, propelled Sanders to victory, according to analysis released by researchers at Tufts University Wednesday.

“In a crowded field with half a dozen major candidates, a remarkable 51 percent of youth support went to Sanders, a decisive 31-point advantage over young people’s second choice, Buttigieg (20 percent). That means Sanders received over 10,000 more votes from young people than Buttigieg in a race that was decided by less than 5,000 votes,” the report said.

Analysis from NextGen New Hampshire, an organization focused on climate issues and young voter registration that was founded by billionaire Democratic candidate Tom Steyer, found an increase in turnout in all four of the state’s big student towns, including Keene.

At polling places across Keene, turnout was 6,855, up 176 votes from 2016 and 552 from 2008.

“What we were seeing on college campuses indicated that this was going to happen. Folks were really excited and ready to engage with the political process,” said Dan Bristol, press secretary for NextGen New Hampshire, adding that students in the state are highly passionate about addressing climate change, achieving affordable education and ending the student-debt crisis.

“Once you talk through the impact a vote can have on those day-to-day issues, it becomes a lot more real to folks,” said Bristol.

Davis Bernstein, Keene State student body president and president of the Keene State College Democrats, said he was proud of his peers for the high turnout.

Sanders candidacy inspired many Keene State students to vote, but the wide range of Democrats in the race also helped boost turnout, said Bernstein.

“There’s been a lot of talk about Democratic fatigue because there’s so many candidates, but I think when there’s more candidates you can find one that represents your values more than usual,” said Bernstein.

Barr faces fresh scrutiny over Stone fiasco

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday put Attorney General William Barr squarely in the middle of the brewing controversy over the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendation for Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone, praising Barr for seizing command of the case from career prosecutors.

The president’s Twitter message came just a day after the Justice Department was again thrust into a political firestorm, when the four prosecutors on the Stone case withdrew from the proceedings amid a dispute over what penalty they should propose for the president’s close associate.

Legal analysts and others said the episode represented a low moment for the agency, suggesting that its Trump-appointed leaders were bending to the president’s political whims and trying to undermine the last prosecution brought by former special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump, though, made clear he was pleased with the department’s moves — and with Barr, in particular.

“Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought,” Trump wrote. “Evidence now clearly shows that the Mueller Scam was improperly brought & tainted.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the president’s statements.

Some current and former Justice Department officials have long feared that Barr is willing to risk the institution’s historic independence to serve an irascible president. The top Democrat in the Senate called for the Justice Department inspector general to investigate the Stone episode, and the House Judiciary Committee announced Wednesday it would have Barr testify at a March 31 hearing to address that case and other recent incidents that it said “raise grave questions” about Barr’s leadership.

Among those is Barr’s recent acknowledgment that he had created what he called an “intake process” for Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to give the Justice Department what Giuliani has claimed is damaging information about former vice president Joe Biden and his family.

Two people familiar with the matter said Barr has instructed the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh to handle such information. Giuliani’s claims are particularly problematic for the Justice Department because he is the president’s lawyer, and under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York for his business ties to two men accused of breaking campaign finance laws.

Barr has also faced criticism for his handling of the Mueller probe — particularly those cases, including the prosecution of Stone, that have continued after the closure of the special counsel’s office last year.

Stone was convicted by a jury in November of obstructing Congress and witness intimidation. Career prosecutors on the case — working out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia — filed Monday their recommendation on what penalty Stone should face when he is sentenced Feb. 20.

That recommendation, though, proved to be thornier than most, as the career prosecutors sparred with their supervisors over what was appropriate. The prosecutors argued the sentencing guidelines called for seven-to-nine years in prison. Political leadership at the Justice Department, though, pushed for something less, because, they argued, Stone’s conduct did not merit a lengthy addition to his sentence for threatening violence.

On Monday, it seemed the career prosecutors had won out. All four signed on to a recommendation, also endorsed by Interim District U.S. Attorney Tim Shea, that recommended a sentence based on a guidelines calculation. The move enraged Trump, who tweeted early the next morning, “This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”

Hours later, a senior Justice Department official claimed department leadership was “shocked” at the recommendation and would move to undo it. All four career prosecutors moved to withdraw from the case, with one quitting the government entirely. The Justice Department then filed a new recommendation — signed by Shea and a different career prosecutor — that said the previous guidance “could be considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances.” It did not advocate for a specific penalty, but suggested three to four years in prison would be reasonable.

Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the department had decided before Trump’s Tuesday tweet to revise the recommendation, and that there were no discussions between the White House and Justice Department about the Stone case in the days leading up to prosecutors’ guidance.

A Justice Department official said senior leaders at the agency had expected the first Stone filing to say what the second filing did.

Officials have not provided a clear timeline of the interactions between career prosecutors and department leadership, or fully explained how leadership could have been taken aback by their initial sentencing recommendation. Shea was a counselor in Barr’s office before he was named as the interim District U.S. attorney last month. Also involved in the discussions was David Metcalf, who had been a counselor in Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen’s office and now works for Shea.

A U.S. attorney’s office spokesman declined comment or address questions about Shea’s and Metcalf’s handling of the matter.

The Stone episode comes just weeks after the District U.S. Attorney’s Office also seemed to soften its stance on another case originally brought by Mueller against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.

In early January, prosecutors recommended that Flynn be sentenced “within the Guidelines range” of zero to six months in prison. But in another filing just weeks later, they made clear they agreed with Flynn that a sentence of probation is “reasonable.”

Prosecutors did not explain in the later filing why they emphasized probation as a reasonable sentence for Flynn. Both documents were signed by career prosecutors — Brandon Van Grack and Jocelyn Ballantine. Flynn is now seeking to withdraw his guilty plea, alleging a variety of government misconduct.

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Keene robbery suspect held without bail

A man accused of robbing a downtown Keene store Tuesday will remain held without bail, after waiving his arraignment Wednesday.

Keene police arrested Joshua D. Drinnon, 26, of Swanzey, around 3 p.m. Tuesday, about two hours after the alleged robbery at Synergy on Main Street.

Records filed Wednesday in Cheshire County Superior Court offer more details about that incident, as well as a separate one last week in which Drinnon is accused of stealing 11 firearms from a Keene home and selling them to someone in Winchester for cocaine.

Drinnon is charged with burglary, robbery and receiving stolen property, all felonies. He is being held at the Cheshire County jail.

He was previously convicted of burglary and robbery in 2015 for burglarizing a Keene home.

Officers responded to Synergy Tuesday after employees reported the robbery, according to an affidavit written by Keene police Sgt. James Cemorelis. Just south of Central Square, the store sells apparel, footwear and sunglasses.

Drinnon entered the store and went straight to the counter, keeping his hands in the pockets of his hooded sweatshirt, according to interviews with the employees that Cemorelis summarizes in his affidavit.

The store manager told police that Drinnon placed some sort of “long and skinny” object — concealed by his sweatshirt pocket — on the counter and demanded money, Cemorelis wrote. She said she never saw the object but believed it was a gun based on Drinnon’s behavior, according to the affidavit.

Thomas said Drinnon left the store with $116, Cemorelis wrote. Another employee told police she recognized the suspect as Drinnon, with whom she attended high school.

According to Cemorelis’ report, Drinnon was spotted leaving the Keene Public Library on West Street, then near the Hundred Nights shelter on Lamson Street, where police found his sweatshirt.

Drinnon was later arrested at the Keene Inn on West Street, where hotel manager Dan Dempsey recognized him from photos posted online and stalled him until police could arrive, Dempsey told The Sentinel Tuesday.

The right pocket of Drinnon’s sweatshirt contained an empty plastic iced tea bottle, and he later insisted that he did not have a weapon during the robbery, Cemorelis wrote.

The burglary and stolen-property charges stem from a separate set of alleged events last week.

On Sunday, a homeowner on Concord Road reported that a large gun safe containing 11 firearms and other items was missing. He believed it had been taken five days earlier, when he had returned home to find his garage door open, though he did not notice the safe was missing until Saturday night, according to an affidavit written by Keene police Officer Mark Cotton.

The homeowner told Cotton that he suspected his adult daughter and her boyfriend, Drinnon, were behind the theft, according to the affidavit.

The daughter told police that she and Drinnon took the safe Feb. 4, believing it contained large amounts of cash that Drinnon thought they could use to get away from the area, Cotton wrote. (No charges had been filed against the daughter in Cheshire County Superior Court as of Wednesday afternoon.)

The woman told police the two went to Winchester, where an acquaintance of Drinnon’s helped him pry open the safe, according to a separate affidavit written by Keene police Lt. Jason Short. She said Drinnon then sold the guns to his acquaintance — who is not identified in the affidavit to protect the ongoing investigation — in exchange for about 7 grams of cocaine, Short wrote. Cotton’s affidavit says the firearms were worth more than $3,500.

She went back to her parents’ house later that day to return some personal items that had been in the safe, according to Short’s affidavit.

After his arrest, according to Short, Drinnon confirmed his involvement in the burglary and the basic details of his girlfriend’s account. Drinnon believed that with the money they expected to find, “they would be able to go to California,” Short wrote.

Drinnon’s 2015 burglary and robbery convictions stem from the prior September, when, according to court records, he stole a safe from a home on South Lincoln Street in Keene and threatened the homeowner with a pitchfork.

He was sentenced to a year in jail.

Even before Iowa fiasco, caucuses were on their way out

WASHINGTON — It didn’t take the high-profile disaster that was last week’s Iowa caucus for state political parties to move away from the party-run presidential preference system.

Even before the Iowa debacle, caucuses were on their way out across the country. Ten states that hosted caucuses in 2016 — Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Utah and Washington — switched to primaries for this presidential cycle.

In the coming weeks, caucuses are looming in Nevada (Feb. 22), North Dakota (March 10) and Wyoming (April 4). The chaos in Iowa has convinced many in those states that this year’s caucuses should be the last.

“It’s not a surprise that with all of this, political parties would want to move away from using caucuses,” said Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine.

Hasen, who recently authored “Election Meltdown,” a book that focuses on increasing distrust in the voting process, said Iowa might stop caucusing or lose its status as the first state to vote.

“People are angry about their incompetence,” he said.

State election agencies run primaries. But in caucuses, parties often rely on limited resources and untrained volunteers, which leaves room for error, said Rachael Cobb, an associate professor of government at Suffolk University who has argued for scrapping the process.

“Caucuses are problematic,” she told Stateline. “I think almost every state party will get rid of them.”

Republicans also hold presidential caucuses and have seen similar debacles. In 2012, the Iowa Republican Party declared the wrong winner of its caucus. It switched the victor two weeks after the contest from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Caucuses bring people together to discuss party platforms and elect delegates to state conventions. But they can take hours, and can leave out voters with children, disabilities and night-shift jobs. They usually occur at night, when participants show up at a precinct, cluster around a sign for their preferred candidate, get counted by hand, then disperse to other gaggles if theirs is declared “nonviable.”

Even before Iowa’s meltdown, national Democratic Party leaders recognized the hurdles of the caucus process and encouraged state parties to make changes, including by passing rules that allow for absentee options and greater access for voters with disabilities.

In Iowa, party leaders introduced satellite caucuses that allowed participation at different locations and times, instead of just the normal 7 p.m. start time at their local precinct. In Nevada, the state party expanded access to early voting.

“If we wanted to expand the process, early voting would be one of the best ways,” said Molly Forgey, the communications director for the Nevada Democratic Party. “Early voting can be less intimidating and take less time.”

But other states have decided that caucuses aren’t worth fixing.

After conducting surveys online and at the Nebraska State Fair that showed an overwhelming majority of Democrats wanted to ditch the caucus system, the state party decided in December 2018 to return to primaries. Nebraska Democrats had held caucuses since 2008.

Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said that while she appreciates the party-building aspects of caucusing, there were too many other reasons to get rid of the system, including concerns about access and difficulties finding caucus space.

Mostly, though, she worried about spending limited state party resources to run the process. Instead, she said, states should run primaries.

“We are a red and rural state that fights tooth and nail for every dollar we raise,” Kleeb said. “I couldn’t justify having to spend $300,000 on facilitating a caucus that I would feel comfortable meeting access standards. That money should be spent on getting Democrats elected and building up local county parties and local volunteer infrastructure.”

There is no question, Kleeb said, that the Democratic National Committee will call a commission after this presidential cycle to look at the future of caucusing and the order of state primaries.

The national party did not respond to a request for comment.

The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party also decided to move to primaries for the presidential election after receiving complaints from voters in 2016 about long lines and other accessibility issues. The party still will keep caucuses around in some form for party-building activities, such as endorsing candidates for local offices and choosing platform positions.

In Wyoming, state Democratic leaders hope this year’s caucus — required under state law — will be their last before switching to a primary system by 2024.

As in other states with caucuses, the Wyoming Democratic Party worked to make the process more accessible. Democrats can now rank candidates on a mail-in ballot before the April 4 contest, meaning they won’t have to show up in person.

“Caucuses are a lot of fun; they’re rowdy and exciting,” said Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman Joe M. Barbuto. “But they don’t necessarily get an accurate count of how a county feels.”

After this presidential cycle, Barbuto wants the legislature to change to a primary system. So far this year, no such bill has been introduced.

North Dakota also is bound by state law to the party-run caucus system. This year, however, the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party has updated the traditional caucus process.

State Democrats will be able to vote in person by simple ballot on March 10 at 14 polling locations statewide, including on the five federally recognized Native American reservations, over an eight-hour window. Voters who cannot show up in person also for the first time have the option of voting early by mail.

“We have a lot of excitement for this from people in our rural community, who often have to drive 20, 30 minutes to the nearest polling station, if not more,” said Tyler Hogan, political affairs director for the state party. He said the option also allows North Dakota Democrats who live out of state during the winter to finally join the caucus process.

With these changes, Hogan expects “a much higher turnout” than in 2016. State parties also want to avoid the issues that plagued this year’s Iowa caucuses.

After years of candidate visits, endless campaign calls, texts and emails, and with the eyes of the world upon them, Iowans gathered Feb. 3 in gymnasiums, union halls and places of worship to decide who they wanted to be the Democratic presidential nominee.

But by the end of the week, there were still no official results because of a coding error by a company the Iowa Democratic Party hired to build an app for precincts to report results.

On Thursday, in response to delays and errors in reporting results, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez called on the Iowa Democratic Party to recanvass the entire state. “Enough is enough,” he tweeted.

But even before the reporting fiasco, the process of caucusing in the Hawkeye State had its challenges: People were turned away at satellite caucus locations for not pre-registering, and disability advocates spent much of the day arranging transportation and assistance for elderly caucus-goers or those with disabilities. Many Iowans decided not to caucus because of some of these barriers.

Addressing the results challenges to reporters the day after the caucuses, Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price apologized for the delay, calling it “unacceptable,” while also recognizing that it calls into question not only Iowa’s status as first in the nation but also using caucuses as a tool.

“I know how important it is for our party, to our state and to everyone from our neighbors to new voters to be able to come together all across the state,” he said in a shaky voice. “The fact is this is a conversation that happens every four years. There is no doubt that conversation will happen again.”

But the caucuses remain popular in Iowa, and for many residents they are a deeply personal process.

Also to be determined would be the effect on the primary/caucus calendar. New Hampshire, under state law, must hold the nation’s first primary. Iowa’s place ahead of the Granite State is allowable (in New Hampshire’s eyes) only because the caucus is different enough in format not to usurp that first-in-the-nation status. If Iowa moves to a primary, it would set up a conflict with New Hampshire that neither state likely wants, especially when both are under fire for their dominant early roles in the party races.The caucuses allow party members to gather in a unique setting and talk about the biggest issues facing the country, said Rachel Paine Caufield, a professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines.

“People say that caucuses shouldn’t exist,” she said, “and I disagree entirely with that. We still need venues in American life where people come together and talk about issues. They talk about candidates, they talk about what’s going on in their community, and they talk about a shared political agenda.”