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NH Senate race recount affirms Prentiss win, yields outcry over discarded absentee ballots

  • Sue Prentiss (Courtesy photograph)

  • Beatriz Pastor

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/15/2020 9:41:58 PM
Modified: 9/16/2020 2:53:21 PM

CONCORD — A recount of the results from last week’s Senate District 5 Democratic primary ended Tuesday with Lebanon City Councilor Sue Prentiss holding a 72-vote lead over former state Rep. Beatriz Pastor, little changed from initial tallies.

However, the battle to represent nine communities in the heart of the Upper Valley may continue if election officials are called on to determine whether to reopen and examine ballots that were disqualified and not counted last week.

Pastor indicated at the end of the four-hour recount that she’s mulling an appeal to New Hampshire’s Ballot Law Commission. Voters, she said, have a right to know why some absentee ballots were discarded by town and ward moderators and whether those ballots would have changed the results.

“This challenge was not about changing the outcome of the election,” she told supporters and opponents inside the New Hampshire Archives building. “It’s about going all the way through the process in such a way that we could restore people’s confidence in the voting system.”

Meanwhile, Prentiss said she’s glad that the recount largely reaffirmed last week’s tally.

“We were pleased to actively engage in the process and look forward to moving forward in my quest to represent Senate District 5,” she said after thanking supporters in the parking lot.

Tuesday’s recount ended with Prentiss receiving 4,134 votes, up just one from the 4,133 that election officials reported last week, according to the most recent official tally offered by the Secretary of State’s Office. Pastor garnered 4,062 votes, one fewer than previously counted.

The district, which is being vacated by state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, stretches from Lyme to Charlestown and includes Lebanon, Hanover, Claremont, Plainfield, Cornish, Enfield and Canaan.

Pastor, a Dartmouth College professor who lives in Lyme, called for a recount Wednesday — a day after the primary — when the margin between the two candidates fell well below the 1.5% threshold for which a recount can be requested.

Volunteers with each campaign sat at tables inside the New Hampshire Archives building, watching screens as election officials slowly turned through piles of ballots.

In the “sort and stack” system, officials placed ballots in two piles — one for Prentiss and another for Pastor — which were then added up in groups of 25 for a final tally.

“The important thing is that candidates get to see every single mark and every single ballot,” Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said while observing a group of volunteers.

About 10 volunteers, which included at least seven current and former lawmakers, from each camp worked in teams of two to monitor the recount.

“If they go too fast let them know,” Scanlan instructed one group. “And if you have any questions just ask them to stop.”

Aside from the sound of turning pages, the hourslong effort was undertaken with a library-like silence, broken up only by bathroom and stretch breaks when volunteers finished with a box of ballots or when the two candidates would check in with advisers.

But tension between the campaigns became apparent as the count ended and those supporting Pastor issued a formal challenge, requesting Secretary of State Bill Gardner to open and possibly include discarded ballots.

He replied that recounts are not investigations and are only intended to count “ballots cast” during an election. Those include ballots placed in a ballot box or those inserted into a counting device.

“I don’t have the authority to do anything over and above what the law specifically requires the Secretary of State to do,” Gardner said.

Ballots may be discarded by a moderator for a variety of reasons, including arriving late or missing a signature.

Hennessey, who endorsed Pastor in the primary, responded to Gardner’s ruling by asking why fellow Democrats would decline to investigate discarded ballots fully.

“That just blows my mind,” she said. “This is unlikely to change anything but we’re asking for integrity in the voting process. What is wrong with that? Why wouldn’t we ask for that?”

That prompted Jennifer Frizzell, a Prentiss volunteer, to say that at that point, the recount may not be the time and place to examine the discarded ballots.

“You can stand for integrity and also recognize that there may be different interpretations (of law),” said Frizzell, who is also the director of policy at the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation.

Pastor said Tuesday evening that she hadn’t yet spoken with New Hampshire election law expert Paul Twomey, an attorney informally advising both candidates on the process, or made a final decision on whether to further contest the election results.

Under New Hampshire law, Gardner will keep the ballots and envelopes under lock and key for another 60 days.

Charlestown Republican Timothy O’Hearne was uncontested in the GOP primary.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or  603-727 -3223.

Correction

New Hampshire election law attorney Paul Twomey informally advised the campaigns of Sue Prentiss and Beatriz Pastor during Tuesday’s recount of the Senate District 5 primary but was not representing either candidate. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described his role in the recount.




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