Ahead of Biden write-in effort, towns and cities issue calls for more poll workers
This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.
Beverly Cotton had lived in Weare for more than 30 years. But it took retirement – and the disruption of COVID-19 – for her to take interest in her town’s elections.
By then she had cast her ballot in countless elections – local, state, and federal. She had passed and greeted the poll workers on the other side of the desk. Yet she’d never considered the human power that made the process possible. In 2020, she picked up the phone and called her town clerk.
“I decided maybe it’d be a good thing to know who these people are. What they do,” she said.
Three years later, Cotton is a regular Election Day volunteer. And she’s become one of the town’s most prolific recruiters. “I sort of put out a little APB and say, ‘Hey, (the town clerk) needs help,’” she said.
That recruitment effort is now more important than ever, election watchers say.
After President Joe Biden declined to file for re-election in the New Hampshire presidential primary, citing the state’s refusal to hold its primary second, Democrats in the state have launched a write-in campaign. When voters go to the polls Jan. 23, Biden’s name will not be on the ballot, but the state could see hundreds of thousands of votes with Biden’s name written. Each one of those votes will need a human to count it.
The write-in effort means cities and larger towns that rely on voting tabulators in most elections will now need to adopt a meticulous hand count – at least when it comes to Democratic ballots.
For moderators, the process is familiar. The new recruits can come from anywhere: friends, neighbors, church groups, and rotary clubs. Each election, hundreds of residents are needed across New Hampshire to help sign in new voters and count ballots. And each election, advocates use every connection they have to spread the word.
This time, though, ahead of what could be a record-breaking number of write-in votes, towns and cities will need even more people.
“That is a challenge that can be overcome,” said Secretary of State Dave Scanlan at a press conference in October. “And I fully expect the towns are going to be able to get the volunteer resources they need to help.”
Poll workers will need to read the write-in entries on each ballot and make sure they can see the voter’s intent before they can move on to the next. And election officials are required by the state constitution to continue counting ballots through the night until they have a result. Breaks in the count are not permitted.
Local organizations like Open Democracy New Hampshire have kicked into gear to spread the word. Cities and towns, too, have put out a call to action.
In Manchester, Assistant City Clerk JoAnn Ferruolo is calling for ward moderators to find 10 to 12 volunteer ballot inspectors in each of its 12 wards, according to an email sent to moderators reviewed by the Bulletin.
With larger numbers of votes to hand count, cities will be most affected by the write-in effort.
In an email to the Bulletin, Manchester City Clerk Matthew Normand said he expects the city to have the volunteers it needs by Jan. 23. Until then, he said, the pressure is on.
“What we are doing in the interim is literally reaching out to everyone we know for names of people interested in working on Election Day,” Normand said. “I’m confident we will have enough support by the time the 23rd arrives but anxiety levels are obviously pretty high until then.”
In cities and towns that normally use ballot machines, poll workers will have a few extra Election Day tasks.
When the polls close, volunteers will need to sort the ballots cast in each machine and find all the ballots in which the voter wrote in a candidate’s name. In many cases, the voting machines will help them: The tabulators will sort write-in ballots into a separate pile – as long as that voter filled in the oval next to the write-in space.
But if voters write a name and do not fill in the oval, the machine will not sort the ballot from the others. Those ballots will need to be manually sorted out of the main pile by election workers at the close of polls.
Once the poll workers have successfully separated all of the write-in ballots, the counting can begin. Moderators, city and town officials, and trained volunteers will sit down and tally the ballots, sorted in stacks of 25.
They will continue until there is a final tally, and until that tally matches the total number of ballots that were distributed at the polling place that day. Only if the numbers add up can the moderators then declare the results.
How long the additional counting of write-in votes will take is anyone’s guess, said Olivia Zink, executive director of Open Democracy New Hampshire. That will depend on how successful each town and ward is at recruiting volunteers, and how many voters show up to cast write-in ballots.
“If communities might be short volunteers, they will count late into the night, but they will get it done,” she said.
According to the secretary of state’s election procedure manual, ballot counters can be any volunteer 17 or older, as long as they reside within that town or city ward.
Those who step up to volunteer are often thrilled to help. In 2022, Christine Riley was frustrated with how election workers in Georgia were treated during former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the presidential election there. She reached out to Ferruolo asking how she could help.
Riley was quickly put onto a dedicated volunteer list and became a deputy registrar in her ward, tasked with helping people register. She’s participated in every election since, sometimes working for 16 hours.
“It’s about doing something in an environment where other people are also hopeful,” she said. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think that our vote counted.”
Scanlan says he isn’t worried about the ability of cities and towns to tally the results on time. But he said staffing is the responsibility of those towns, not the state. So far, he said, no city or town has contacted the state office with concerns.
“Typically, they have a good pool of volunteers that step up and help them at every election and, and I expect it’s going to be the same this time,” he said in an interview Thursday.
Zink says some municipalities simply aren’t ready yet. City and town clerks may not have had time to consider the extra volunteers needed, Zink said. This month, many are busy working with the state’s Department of Revenue Administration to determine property tax rates for next year.
As of early December, some cities and towns have a better sense of their recruiting goals than others, Zink says.
“To me, the communities that at least know how many more people they need are ahead of the communities that don’t know what they’re recruiting for,” she said.
Open Democracy is working with other organizations, including the New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights, Power to the Polls, and Vet the Vote, to try to recruit volunteers.
The state, meanwhile, is holding a series of training sessions across the state, beginning Dec. 12.
To Cotton, successful recruitment requires many approaches. Sometimes, she’ll reach out to her friends via email; other times, a face-to-face sales pitch will do the job.
Winning over volunteers is often as easy as simply explaining how elections are run and telling people about the opportunity, she said. One of the younger people she’s brought into the effort used a vacation day to take off work and experience the process for himself. “It was almost an educational experience for him,” she said.
Because the demand this election is for more ballot counters at the end of the night, town clerks and moderators may have an easier time, Cotton says: More people who work during the day will be free to jump in.
Cotton says the camaraderie and sense of civic purpose among fellow volunteers should be advertisement enough.
“They’re just unsung heroes, really,” she said. “They’re just wonderful people who want to participate on an extra level in democracy.”
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