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Auditors: 'No Basis' to Think Windham Vote Issues Indicate 'Partisan Bias or a Failed Election'

voting booths
Allegra Boverman for NHPR
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The auditors investigating discrepancies in Windham’s 2020 election results concluded that fold lines on absentee ballots were the “primary root cause” of a nearly 400-point gap in vote totals for one local legislative race.

“We found no basis to believe that the miscounts found in Windham indicate a pattern of partisan bias or a failed election,” the auditors wrote in their final report, released Tuesday.

If you need more background on the audit and what prompted it: What’s Happening With Windham’s Election Audit?

The report’s conclusion mirrors earlier suspicions auditors raised about the role that folded ballots may have played in vote discrepancies in the town’s election results.

Questions began swirling around Windham’s election last November, after a recount for the town’s state representative seats differed substantially from the vote totals reported locally on Election Night. During the recount, Republican candidates gained nearly 300 votes apiece, while one Democratic candidate lost nearly 100 votes. Despite a lack of evidence that fraud or other systemic problems were to blame, the issue attracted the attention of former President Trump and conspiracy theorists trying to delegitimize the results of the 2020 election.

Both the state Ballot Law Commission and the Attorney General’s office declined to investigate what was behind that gap, saying they lacked authority. Eventually, state lawmakers introduced legislation specifically designed to investigate what happened in Windham, kicking off the process that led to the newly released report.

The auditors’ final report is the culmination of an investigation that began in May when the auditors spent three weeks examining Windham’s election results and machinery in-person at a New Hampshire National Guard facility.

Read more: Ballot Folds, Not Fraud, Likely Culprit At Center of Windham Election Audit

Beyond summarizing the findings of the audit, the report also outlines a series of recommendations for how to prevent similar issues in the future. First and foremost, they suggest not folding ballots, period. They also say the state should routinely conduct "risk-limiting audits" of its election results. Right now, New Hampshire is in the minority of states without a system for regularly auditing its elections.

The auditors also advise New Hampshire to change its election laws to ensure that its vote-counting devices notify election officials when a ballot has too many votes in a particular race — a policy change that lawmakers and the Secretary of State’s office have opposed in the past. While the auditors say this might not have prevented all of Windham’s problems, it likely would have helped to identify the issue sooner because the fold lines in the ballots were in some cases misinterpreted as “over-votes” and rejected as part of the totals reported on Election Night. 

During their in-person review of Windham’s election results, the auditors learned that fold lines on the town’s absentee ballots intersected with the vote bubble for a Democratic state representative candidate. When those ballots were fed through New Hampshire’s AccuVote counting machines, the devices misinterpreted the fold line as a vote. The auditors also learned that Windham used a borrowed folding machine that was normally used for motor vehicle registration paperwork to prepare its absentee ballots, which did not fold the ballots as designed, with the creases falling between vote bubbles rather than through them.

Those errors wouldn’t have just added to the Democratic candidate’s totals on Election Day; they would have also detracted from Republican candidates’ totals. If someone voted straight-ticket for Republicans in the state representative race and had a fold line through the Democratic candidate on their ballot, the vote-counting machine would have interpreted this as an “overvote” where the voter selected too many choices for a particular race. Those votes would instead be logged as “blanks” and not reported in the vote totals printed from the machines.

In their report, the Windham auditors also acknowledged that they discovered “other small discrepancies and irregularities” that they could not fully explain, but cautioned that those should not be cause for concern.

“People conduct elections, and people make mistakes,” the auditors wrote. “Discovering these mistakes provides an opportunity to improve procedures in future elections.”

The Attorney General and Secretary of State say they are reviewing the report and will prepare their own report with "any resulting recommendations," as mandated by the law authorizing the audit. The Ballot Law Commission is also required to prepare its own report, as well.

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