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Citing conspiracies, some N.H. GOP lawmakers and activists push for a 2020 election audit

Terese 2-2-22.jpg
Todd Bookman
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NHPR News
Terese Grinnell testifies Wednesday in support of a bill that would launch an audit of the 2020 election.

It’s not unusual to have passions flare during a debate at the State House. But this legislative session has brought defiance, anger and mistrust, all of which were on full display Wednesday during a hearing on a bill that would re-litigate the 2020 election.

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Wednesday’s hearing offered the latest example of how the Legislature is becoming a venue for conspiracy theories and tense confrontations — over vaccines, the voting process and more — thanks to some Republican lawmakers who are pushing bills based off misinformation and a small, but vocal, group of activists who show up to amplify those causes.

As introduced, House Bill 1484 directs the Speaker of the House to “appoint an independent third party to conduct a forensic audit of the general election that took place on November 3, 2020,” though it doesn’t elaborate on what the audit would entail besides a search for “anomalies or discrepancies” in the results. The bill would allow members of the public to contribute to the cost of the audit that could easily run into millions of dollars.

Rep. Timothy Baxter of Seabrook, the bill’s prime sponsor and a candidate in the Republican primary for New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District, said he filed the legislation because “a majority of this state thinks either the 2016 or 2020 election was stolen.” But polling from the University of New Hampshire after the 2020 election found that nearly two-thirds of New Hampshire residents accepted President Joe Biden’s victory as valid.

Baxter has also previously said he was inspired to file the legislation after following a probe into Arizona’s 2020 election results.

“We don’t know if there is fraud (in New Hampshire) until we do the forensic audit,” Baxter told WMUR in September. “Arizona showed us this.”

Election security experts have said what happened in Arizona wasn’t really an audit. Instead, as reported by NPR, they’ve described it as "performance art,” "a clown show," and "a waste of taxpayer money." But they have also warned that what played out in Arizona could serve as a “playbook” for people to challenge the validity of the election results in other states — as Baxter and other supporters of a 2020 audit in New Hampshire are doing now.

It’s unclear how far this push will advance, particularly since it lacks support from the state’s top election official. Secretary of State David Scanlan, who has overseen elections in New Hampshire for more than two decades, said there’s no credible evidence suggesting that the last election needs to be investigated. On Thursday, the House Election Law Committee voted unanimously against recommending the legislation, according to WMUR, though the bill will still come up for a vote before the full House.

While Scanlan was the lone voice opposing the push for a statewide audit of the 2020 results at Wednesday’s hearing, he has said audits can be a way to build trust in the election process if done carefully — and is supporting a separate, bipartisan bill to audit the 2022 results.

“The system is not perfect,” Scanlan told lawmakers on Wednesday. “There are mistakes that are made, and when they are, people are held accountable.”

Scanlan also emphasized that average citizens — many of them volunteers inside of town and city halls — are at the core of the state’s election process, and they can be trusted.

A failure at “an individual level does not translate into some type of a major conspiracy or collusion to do something different with the actual election results,” he said.

But those who showed up to demand an audit of the 2020 election were united not just in their mistrust not just of the voting process, but also of state officials like Scanlan and many of the lawmakers sitting on the House Election Law Committee.

“It’s rigged from within,” Kelley Potenza, of Rochester, told the committee.

Despite a lack of credible evidence of fraud or other anomalies in New Hampshire or elsewhere, Potenza and other speakers alleged the election was hacked, meddled with or — at a minimum — compromised.

“Do a little research, spend an afternoon, and start connecting the dots,” Dave Planka told lawmakers. “We are telling you this is what we want. It is not an option.”

House Election Law committee members from both parties sat quietly throughout the hour of testimony. Almost none of them asked follow-up questions or pushed back on the activists’ claims, including long-debunked allegations that out-of-state voters arrive by the busload to cast ballots in New Hampshire.

At times, the testimony Wednesday also turned personal. Many of the activists have become a regular presence at the State House this session, using public comment periods as a chance to protest the New Hampshire political establishment at large. At this point, they know the lawmakers, and the lawmakers know them.

That includes Terese Grinnell, a central figure in the local anti-vaccine movement who has also taken up the mantle of election reform in recent months. Before diving into her testimony on the audit bill, she made a point of turning to a local television reporter at the start of her testimony to ensure his camera was on.

“We have people here that do not care about voter integrity,” Grinnell said. “We have no hope here in them fixing the problem in New Hampshire. They’re about money, and they are about politics, and we have a bootlicker list, and several of you are on it.”

Some of these confrontations also spilled out beyond the committee room. Marilyn Todd, an activist from Nashua, trailed Scanlan into the hallways following his testimony, apparently unsatisfied with his testimony saying the 2020 election results were sound.

“That is a lie, and I'm calling you out on it, and I've sent you all the evidence,” she told him. He responded that he hadn’t seen any evidence, before politely ending the conversation and walking away. Todd followed him down the hallway, continuing to make claims about voter fraud, a sign she and other activists don’t plan on giving up any time soon.

(Editor's note: this story was updated to reflect Thursday's vote by the House Election Law Committee against recommending the legislation.)

At NHPR, we’re continuing to cover conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns on the local level. We want to hear from you about how these dynamics are affecting your life. Email us here to tell us your story, and stay tuned for another story about how conspiracy theories are driving political action in the Granite State.

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