Of the many nationwide initiatives which, under the trumped-up guise of “reforming” the way elections are conducted, serve only to undermine confidence in election results, New Hampshire residents can heave a sigh of relief that one has been swatted away here. Last week, the House Election Committee’s 11 Republican and nine Democratic members voted unanimously that House Bill 1064 was inexpedient to legislate, and the full House has now killed the bill. As welcome as that is, the Legislature shouldn’t have stopped there.
HB 1064 would have required every city and town to count ballots by hand, thereby forcing roughly two-thirds of the state’s municipalities — Keene and other area communities among them — to stop using AccuVote optical scanning machines to tabulate results. The bill dangled a solution seeking a problem, and to the Election Committee’s credit it didn’t take the bait.
At hearings, state and local election officials vouched for the machines’ high degree of accuracy and trustworthiness, and the committee’s bipartisan report to the House tersely stated “there is no evidence of hacking” from use of the machines. The conclusion is not surprising, for the AccuVote machines are not connected to the Internet — a possible vulnerability of voting technology used in some other states — and New Hampshire law requires they be backed up by paper ballots that are available for hand recounts.
The committee and House action is a rejection of claims by HB 1064’s proponents that hand-counting of ballots is necessarily more reliable than the AccuVote tabulations. A 2012 study by Clemson and Rice universities had previously found the margin of error in hand counts to be about 2 percent and the committee heard testimony that New Hampshire’s machine accuracy exceeds 99 percent.
The committee also cited a legitimate concern that forcing hand-counting on all communities would require their election officials, staffs and volunteers to work many more hours during already prolonged days to conduct their counts, which under the state constitution, Secretary of State David Scanlan says, must be completed by each election day’s end. In short, the committee reported, the machines “are more precise and not subject to the human frailties of fatigue or distraction.”
The committee and, by extension, the House have wisely left it to individual communities to determine whether to invest in the machines or count ballots by hand, and it’s noteworthy that proposals to replace scanners with hand counts failed at various town meetings considering them last week. But an opportunity to do more has been missed. As reliable as the AccuVote machines are, they still have a margin for error, albeit one that’s very minimal and less than for hand-counting. And if towns and cities can be entrusted with deciding whether to use them, their election officials should be allowed discretion to conduct hand audits or similar testing to verify results. This is a position advocated for a number of years by some concerned voters, including locally Keene’s Gerhard Bedding and Jaffrey’s Deborah Sumner, but has been fiercely resisted by Scanlan’s long-serving predecessor, Bill Gardner.
As we’ve observed before, it’s a myth that all election results can be perfectly accurate. New Hampshire’s, whether tabulated as they are by the optical scanners in the majority of the state’s communities or by hand in the others, have proved highly and — compared to some other states — enviably reliable. But if empowering local election officials to conduct hand audits of their machines’ results might close the very minimal margin of error gap just a bit, the Legislature should consider it seriously.