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Upper Valley election officials say miscount like in Windham, NH, unlikely to happen here

  • People helping with a vote recount wait for the voting machine's error message after a ballot, fed into the machine by Woodstock Town Clerk Charlie Degener, right, was rejected, during a recount of the race between Republican David Ainsworth and Sarah Buxton, D - Tunbridge, at the Windsor County Courthouse in Woodstock, Vt., Monday, November 21, 2016. The ballot had jammed in the reader and needed to be removed manually. From left are Windsor County Clerk Pepper Tepperman, Chuck Ashton, of Tunbridge, Marlene Brand, of South Royalton, John Dumville, of South Royalton, and Suzanne Butterfield, of Stockbridge. The result of the recount was inconclusive after two ballots were sent for review by a judge. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/17/2021 9:58:58 PM
Modified: 7/17/2021 9:58:59 PM

WEST LEBANON — Upper Valley election officials say regular and rigorous testing of vote-counting machines combined with other checks on Election Day tallies should prevent irregularities like those seen last year in the southern New Hampshire community of Windham, where improperly folded ballots skewed the results of a legislative race.

A recent audit of 2020 election results from that community found that folding machines used to send out absentee ballots caused a crease to run through the name of one Democrat running for the New Hampshire House.

When those ballots were then fed through counting machines, many either weren’t counted or a vote was wrongly given to the Democrat, although in the Republican-leaning town of Windham, it didn’t change the election results.

Even so, the gap between the numbers from election night and the hand recount drew national attention from Republicans and former President Donald Trump, who hoped a closer look would uncover evidence of widespread voter fraud in the election that Trump lost. The audit revealed a much simpler explanation.

“Harried election officials borrowed a folding machine to send out thousands of absentee ballots more quickly, and votes on roughly 400 ballots were miscounted as a result,” the auditors wrote in their final report, which was released earlier this week.

It’s a scenario that Lebanon City Clerk Kristen Kenniston knows well. As election officials were preparing for the city’s 2016 general election, folded test ballots sent through Lebanon’s machines had similar problems, leading to a hand count of about 900 absentee ballots that year.

“We happened across it by chance and said, ‘Well, that’s interesting,’ ” Kenniston said Thursday. “Now, every single election, we test with some folds for that occurrence.”

Kenniston said it’s thanks to a state law requiring municipalities to test their voting machines, which in most towns are AccuVote optical readers, combined with the keen eye of election officials, that the folding error was caught.

But, she said, Lebanon now folds “the heck out of” its test ballots to be sure things are in order.

Hanover Town Clerk Betsy McClain said the town also folds test ballots and makes a variety of marks to be sure its machines are capable of producing an accurate vote.

“But with any system, there are weaknesses that can be improved upon,” she said. “And let’s focus on improving those weaknesses.”

To McClain, what happened in Windham was a glaring example of New Hampshire’s outdated voting technology.

The AccuVote optical reader was developed in the 1980s, using old technology that was phased out in the 2000s. It’s no longer manufactured, meaning New Hampshire clerks often have to rely on old or refurbished parts to repair aging machines.

And while some have praised AccuVote’s lack of internet capability or general-purpose operating system for its difficulty to hack, McClain said, there are better machines on the market with similar security protocols that are still capable of reading a ballot with creases from folds.

“To me, the dots that need to be connected are that we’re all making excuses for these machines,” she said. “I was not surprised that there were problems with our decades-old machines.”

Newport Town Clerk Liselle Dufort also said New Hampshire needs upgraded technology. However, she added, it’s clear that election officials had good intentions.

Because of the expansion of absentee ballot voting under the coronavirus pandemic, clerks across the state were attempting to process a record number of mailed-in and dropped off ballots, often with fewer volunteers, she said.

“The general consensus is that this could happen to any of us at any time,” said Dufort, who sits on the executive board of the New Hampshire City and Town Clerks’ Association.

She added that small towns, like Newport, usually fold absentee ballots, which come from the state with premarked fold lines, by hand.

In their report, the Windham auditors noted that recounts of nine other New Hampshire House races in 2020 did not find similar discrepancies.

“Thus, it appears that the statewide impact of folds in 2020 was marginal,” they said, adding that what happened in Windham was “not the tip of a massive misconduct iceberg.”

But the auditors did offer several suggestions to New Hampshire officials. Those include considering no longer folding ballots and improving ballot machine maintenance.

The New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office and Attorney General’s Office are also expected to release their own report and recommendations.

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




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