For several years, as some New Hampshire lawmakers have blathered on disingenuously about “tightening” the state’s election security by making it harder for groups of eligible voters to register and cast their ballots, a group of legitimately concerned voters — including Jaffrey’s Deb Sumner and Keene’s Gerhard Bedding — have been trying to convince the state to take a closer — and public — look at the machines used to tally votes in 85 percent of the state.
And for years the Secretary of State’s Office has said: Nothing to see here; our machines and our vetting process are virtually foolproof. Secretary of State Bill Gardner has gone so far as to issue a written reprimand of one town moderator who dared conduct a hand audit of machines in her town.
As we’ve previously noted, New Hampshire’s elections are well-run, from Gardner’s office down to local clerks, moderators and volunteers. Its fairly transparent that claims of “voter fraud” are an excuse for efforts to suppress the votes of college students and others. That’s because every time the charge is made that New Hampshire’s elections are a beacon to all who would falsely register and vote to “steal” an election, Gardner quickly bats it down with the same response: There have been no cases of widespread voter fraud in New Hampshire under his watch. And he’s been in the position for more than 44 years.
That longevity and success, and his reputation as a fierce defender of the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, have imbued Gardner with such presence on matters of elections that even when lawmakers put forth legislation to actually make things more secure, a word from Gardner has been enough to derail things.
And thus far, he’s flatly refused to acknowledge the possibility that the ballot scanners used in Keene and elsewhere might possibly malfunction or, perhaps worse, be hacked. This, though Keene’s AccuVote machines date back to 1993 — which, if they were automobiles, would qualify them as antiques.
But when House Bill 43 comes up for debate this session, things may be different. That’s because the bill is a direct response to a troubling scenario in the wake of last November’s election in the town of Windham.
There, on Nov. 3, four Republicans were elected to the N.H. House, defeating four Democrats. That wasn’t big news. The GOP gained many seats in the House that day and all four seats were already in GOP hands. No, the issue came afterward, when the top vote-getter among the Democrats requested a recount. That, too, is par for the course in a relatively close race, and only 24 votes separated the fourth and fifth finishers. But when state elections officials hand-recounted the ballots, seven of the eight candidates picked up about 300 votes each, while Kristi St. Laurent, who had requested the recount, lost 99.
That’s a lot of votes. In this case, the overall results stayed the same; but had St. Laurent, rather than Republican Julius Soti, picked up 300 votes, she would now be in the state Legislature. There’s been much hue and cry about the discrepancy. Those grasping for any evidence of widespread fraud labeled it evidence that the system was rigged, while the contingent of critics calling for more hand-auditing of machine counts saw it as vindication of another sort.
At the very least, it’s been an embarrassment for Gardner and Windham officials, and caught the attention of enough people that the Legislature got involved. This week, House Bill 43 sprang from the Election Law Committee with unanimous support. It calls for Gardner and the state attorney general to audit the counting machines used in Windham, including hand counting the ballots again from the Rockingham District 7 House race.
Importantly, the entire thing will be done publicly, livestreamed and the results will be made public. If the bill survives intact.
In the aftermath of the recount, Gardner has seemed to indicate human error is the most likely culprit. That’s certainly possible. But so is machine error. We saw it here in Keene in that same election, when a machine in Ward 5 stopped counting absentee ballots being fed into it. A new memory card had to be inserted and the ballots fed through again.
Hopefully, the audit will be held, publicly, and will reveal what went wrong in Windham Nov. 3 (or at the state’s offices later). Because something did, and those in charge shouldn’t rest until they know what.