Hand count or AccuVote? At least a dozen N.H. communities will decide at town meeting
This week, voters in Milton will be asked to weigh in on more than 30 different issues: the school budget, the next fire chief, and even the type of light bulbs used in street lamps.
But another item on Milton’s town meeting ballot could reshape the town’s election process itself. Residents in this small Strafford County community are being asked to decide whether election officials should continue using a ballot counting machine, known as the AccuVote, or revert to a hand count.
Milton is one of more than a dozen communities voting on vote-counting this town meeting season, after activists who question the accuracy and security of the AccuVote machines launched a campaign to ditch these devices in favor of hand counting.
The activists behind the push to hand count all ballots contend, without proof, that the machines can be hacked or rigged — mirroring a broader movement to undermine the voting process in the wake of the 2020 election.
State and local election officials say the AccuVotes, the only approved ballot counting machine in New Hampshire, have proven themselves reliable at the polls and in an exhaustive outside audit held last spring.
While the debate over vote counting methods is heating up in the wake of the 2020 election, towns have always had the ability to choose how they want to count their ballots. According to the Secretary of State’s office, more than 100 communities continue to hand count — but they represent about 10 percent of the state’s voters.
For many towns, the decision to use a ballot counting machine comes down to speed, the availability of Election Day workers and expectations of residents.
“We live in an instantaneous world, and everybody seems to want the answer now, or five minutes after polls close,” said Chris Jacobs, Milton’s town administrator. “If you hand count, there will be no instantaneous decision.”
AccuVote: Workhorse of the democratic process?
AccuVotes, which have been in use since the late 1980s, are decidedly low-tech: they plug into the wall for electricity but don’t connect to the internet; they rely on memory cards that get programmed before each election by a vendor based in Salem.
The machines were widely seen as efficient workhorses of the democratic process for decades. But after the 2020 election, when some supporters of President Donald Trump began looking for scapegoats to blame the election loss on, the AccuVotes came under fire.
In hearings at the State House and more recently during town deliberative sessions, opponents of the machines have alleged they can be hacked, rigged or otherwise compromised. Some Republican lawmakers, backed by the same activists pushing the bans at a town level, have proposed banning the machines statewide.
“It is shocking to me that we would allow machines to wipe away the voices of the citizens of New Hampshire,” Brenda Towne, of Stratham, said during public testimony on one such bill earlier this year. “We want the machines out.”
To be clear, there is no evidence these machines have wiped out votes. But many activists point to what happened in the town of Windham in 2020 to justify their suspicions. There, the AccuVote machines didn’t count the ballots correctly on election night for one of the town’s legislative races. While a hand recount confirmed that the machines correctly identified the winning candidates, the original machine tally was off by several hundred votes.
An extensive audit conducted by a trio of independent election security experts would later determine that the machines weren’t the root cause of the problem. Instead, the auditors found that some of Windham’s ballots were folded improperly, leaving creases that looked like votes when the ballots were passed through the machines. While the auditors said dust build-up inside Windham’s voting machines might have exacerbated the issue, they didn’t find any evidence to suggest the machines were compromised and put forward a series of recommendations – including improved machine maintenance — to avoid similar mistakes in future elections.
But nearly a year later, some activists in New Hampshire — and across the country — refuse to accept that reality. Windham is one of the communities where activists have successfully petitioned to get a warrant article that would require hand counting in future elections on the local ballot.
In social media posts and campaign mailers, groups like Hand Count NH and the New Hampshire Voter Integrity Group have made distorted claims about the Windham audit to encourage other communities to ban their machines. (Those groups were recently citedby the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office for sending out mailers that appear to violate state election disclosure laws.)
What happened in Windham has also become a piece of political fodder for allies of former president Trump seeking to undermine the validity of the 2020 election, like Mike Lindell (better known as the “My Pillow Guy”). Lindell has used his platform to rally behind local activists trying to eradicate New Hampshire’s ballot-counting machines.
“People in New Hampshire do not want machines,” Lindell claimed during a recent segment on his internet talk show, in which he interviewed one of the local activists campaigning against AccuVote devices.
Lindell also visited Manchester in February for an “election security” presentation targeted toward state and local officials, where he helped to amplify the grassroots campaign that has landed the question on the ballot in many towns this year.
On hand-counted ballots: “It is impossible that errors would not be made.”
Getting ahead of misinformation about New Hampshire’s vote counting processes is a priority for the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Dave Scanlan.
“Given the climate that we have today, we just have to do a better job of being transparent and explaining the process and helping people understand that the system that we have is a really really good one,” said Scanlan, who became the state’s top election official in January.
Scanlan, who has helped to oversee New Hampshire elections for decades, noted that most Election Day mistakes aren’t caused by machines — though they have jammed or malfunctioned in the past. He said math errors caused by humans trying to hand tally lots of ballots are more common.
That risk of a simple tallying error isn’t lost on Margaret Byrnes, executive director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association. While she said the group doesn’t have a formal position on the town ballot initiatives, she cautioned that a sudden transition from machines to a hand count in many larger towns would likely lead to even more errors.
“Imagine these sort of exhausted people hand-counting ballot after ballot with 20, 30, 40 questions,” Byrnes said. “It is impossible that errors would not be made.”
There are steps built into the process to avoid those kinds of errors on the machine side, too. Before every single election, communities that use AccuVote machines are required to test the machines — in public, for anyone to observe — to make sure they’re working correctly. Just a few weeks ago, Milton administrator Chris Jacobs gathered with other town officials and volunteers to perform that state-mandated test of their AccuVote machine inside the local town hall.
The machine, which resembles a large paper shredder, was wheeled out of storage and dusted off. A stack of sample ballots were then fed into the machine in multiple directions, including those with extraneous marks and write-in candidates.
As the test wrapped up, Jacobs clicked a button on the AccuVote, signaling that it was time for the machine to start spitting out results.
Over the whir of register tape, Jacobs said he supports people in the town taking a close look at how their elections are managed.
Still, he said, “at this local level, within this community, the process is pure. It is not corrupted.”
But despite being given an opportunity to come inspect the machines during the test run, nobody from the public, including those who mistrust these machines, attended the event.
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