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Spurred by election misinformation and skepticism, crowd urges N.H. lawmakers to outlaw ballot-counting machines

Secretary of State Dave Scanlan testifies on a bill that would outlaw vote counting machines in New Hampshire elections
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Secretary of State Dave Scanlan did not take a formal position on the bill but did stress that New Hampshire's vote-counting devices have proven accurate — and humans can be prone to error.

An effort to outlaw ballot-counting machines in New Hampshire elections drew dozens of supporters to the State House for a public hearing on Thursday, but the same proposal drew hesitation from election officials who said it was neither necessary nor practical.

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Those urging lawmakers to get rid of the state’s voting machines expressed deep skepticism about New Hampshire’s election systems and state institutions at large. Many said their doubts were reinforced by errors in the town of Windham’s 2020 machine count that were quickly corrected and later thoroughly investigated. At the same time, many also cited distorted statistics and other falsehoods to justify their claims that voting machines can’t be trusted to produce accurate results.

For decades, only one model of vote-counting machine has been approved for use in New Hampshire elections. That device, the AccuVote OS, doesn’t connect to the internet and “predates modern network technologies,” according to an overview compiled by an outside expert. And right now, the state doesn’t mandate that cities or towns use any machines — it’s up to individual communities to decide.

“The machines we use are the most basic of devices,” said Milford Town Clerk Joan Dargie, testifying on behalf of the New Hampshire City and Town Clerks Association. “They are only reading the marks on the ballot.”

Dargie said forcing communities to go back to hand-counting would add too much extra labor for local poll workers who are already putting in 16 to 17 hours of work on Election Day. With machines in use, Dargie said her town, Milford, usually has about 200 volunteers working at the polls, and recruiting those volunteers is a persistent challenge for many communities; if they had to hand count, she estimates they’d need to find an additional 150 people.

Newly appointed Secretary of State Dave Scanlan didn’t take a formal position on the proposal to do away with the machines altogether, saying his office generally defers to municipalities and the Legislature on how they’re used. But he did offer reassurances that New Hampshire’s machines have largely proven accurate — more so than hand counting.

“If we did away with the machines, if we got rid of them completely, I don't believe the problem is going to be solved, because there are many, many instances where there are hand counts that have been done in elections, that have been off to a much greater degree than machine counts,” Scanlan said. “As long as there are humans involved in the election process, we’re going to have errors.”

At the same time, Scanlan said he recognized that many who support mandatory hand-counting are motivated by a lack of faith in the election process, and said he's open to working on solutions to rebuild that trust.

Scanlan suggested that election audits, and greater transparency in general, could help. New Hampshire's lack of routine election audits has been cited as an election security flaw by outside experts in the past.

Among other things, those in favor of mandatory hand-counts frequently pointed to problems with voting machine tallies of some races in Windham’s 2020 election results, suggesting those errors were indicative of more systemic issues statewide. However, a hand recount quickly detected those errors and a comprehensive, independent audit later determined that the initial miscount stemmed from problems with how the town’s absentee ballots were folded.

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

The state’s top election authorities have also endorsed several proposed reforms, such as risk-limiting audits and increased training for election officials, meant to prevent another repeat of what happened in Windham.

Many of those rallying behind the push to mandate hand-counted elections have said they don’t trust the audit’s conclusion — and have consequently turned their attention to changing the rules for ballot counting at the state and local level. That includes one such effort in the town of Greenland, where last month voters overwhelmingly decided to stick with their traditional ballot counting devices.

Some of those organizing the local movements against ballot counting machines are also among those who’ve most vigorously protested the state’s pandemic response. Some of the same people lobbying lawmakers on the ballot counting measure were, on the same day, amplifying false claims about COVID-19 vaccines in another legislative hearing about immunization mandates at schools and childcare centers.

“We have lost our jobs, our schools, our hospitals, our families and we’re not going away, and we’re paying attention,” Terese Grinnell, who was arrested while protesting an Executive Council meeting last fall, told the House Election Law Committee on Thursday. “And we are going to get our voter integrity back, because without that we have nothing.”

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