With tensions high after 2020, election officials hope for smooth day of midterm voting

  • Dick Ballou plucks absentee ballots out of a box at the Hartford polling station at the Hartford High School on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in White River Junction, Vt. Ballou is on the board of civil authority and the box is checked throughout the day. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/5/2022 10:27:48 PM
Modified: 11/5/2022 10:27:20 PM

LEBANON — The high-stakes general election on Nov. 8 will play out against a backdrop of an election conspiracy theory that raises doubts — and seemingly at times a fist — at traditional democratic processes. But as misinformation abounds and election systems across the country face increased scrutiny, officials in the Upper Valley say they anticipate a voting day free of the vitriol that has taken root in some corners of the country.

At a news conference on Wednesday hosted by the New Hampshire Voter Empowerment Task Force, election experts urged Granite State municipalities to be on guard against intimidation tactics at the polls. Intimidating an election officer is now a class B felony in New Hampshire, after the Legislature passed SB 405 last session.

McKenzie St. Germain, campaign director for the New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights, warned against bad-faith actors who use “lies and conspiracies to undermine our democracy by making access to voting needlessly difficult.”

Officials expect the tensest election days in the southern part of the state and along the Seacoast.

Some voters, skeptical of voting machines, are opting out of marking their ballots, instead writing down the names of candidates already on the ballot to ensure that their vote is counted by hand. Derry, N.H., was flushed with write-in ballots in the primaries, which kept election officials parsing through votes until 3 a.m.

But Newport, N.H.’s town clerk doesn’t anticipate that kind of stress in her town.

“It’s a much smaller, quiet, intimate area here. We know our residents quite well,” clerk Liselle Dufort said. “Fortunately the few times — and I wouldn’t even call it people trying to be intimidating — that people had questions or concerns, you teach them. You educate them, and you just are as transparent as possible.”

Across the river, Election Day preparations in Hartford are proceeding “as steady as can be,” Town Clerk Lisa O’Neil said. She added that the town is “aware” of election concerns but that election officials there “haven’t had any firsthand overtures by anyone suggesting anything we should be overly concerned about.”

So apart from standard preparations — like readying the ballots and perfecting workflows — Upper Valley officials are focused mostly on ensuring that voters continue to turn to accurate sources for information.

“If you have questions, ask officials,” Dufort said. “We’re the ones who are educated. A lot of people say that, ‘Oh, I heard this from so and so.’ But it’s better to hear that from us.”

And she’s prepared: Dufort attended more of the general election training sessions hosted by the Secretary of State’s office than any other New Hampshire local clerk.

In New Hampshire, a new vote reconciliation process at the end of the night has been instituted statewide due to the anticipated increase in write-in votes. Officials are instructed to refrain from announcing the results from the machine counts until those numbers have been reconciled with the hand-counted ballots.

“This may result in a longer process to count ballots at the end of the night, and later results on election night than Granite Staters maybe are used to,” St. Germain said at the news briefing. “We know that these procedures, as well as the overall increased scrutiny of election officials, could make for tense counting periods in places where activists have heightened interest.”

Skepticism surrounding voting machines thrives still, and whispers of that distrust do crop up in the Upper Valley occasionally.

Fairlee recently purchased a new optical scan tabulator, which reads marked paper ballots, and “somebody made a comment about the tabulator at the polling place in August, about how it was a Dominion machine,” Town Clerk Georgette Wolf-Ludwig said. (Dominion voting machines were the subject of conspiracy theories during the 2020 election. The company has filed a defamation lawsuit against Fox News, arguing the network perpetuated claims about the company it knew to be false.)

But it was only that — a single comment — and all other reception of the new equipment has been positive, she said.

“Sometimes you can feel if there’s any tension here before Election Day. But I haven’t had any phone calls, people upset or anything,” she said. “We’re a pretty tight-knit community here.”

Election Tuesday continues to be a celebration for Upper Valley voting officials.

“I love voting day. It’s really fun. With COVID and mail-in, you don’t see as many people anymore, but I kind of expect that we’ll be getting more people,” Wolf-Ludwig said, referring to Vermont’s system of mailing ballots to every registered voter.

Peter Berger has been an election volunteer in Fairlee for over a decade.

“You get to see a lot of the townsfolk that you might or might not see on a regular basis, and have conversations,” Berger said. “In that sense, it’s a pretty nonpartisan event. Folks are just going through the process, but it allows you to catch up.”

That sense of community gathering is an added benefit — or for some, a critical component — of the election process that will not be easily overshadowed by conspiracy theories or intimidation.

“Everything’s gone smoothly,” Lebanon Town Clerk Kristin Kinniston said about Election Day preparation in the city. “So make sure you come in and vote. We want to see everyone.”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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