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What two NH election officials want voters to know ahead of the 2024 primary

Two people at a red diner booth talk with another person with mics in front of them.
Dan Tuohy
Tilton Assistant Town Moderator Chuck Mitchell and Tilton Town Moderator Helen Hanks talk with NHPR's Rick Ganley at the Tilt'n Diner.

Election officials are gearing up for the 2024 Presidential Primary on Tuesday. Some voters have concerns nationally, and here in New Hampshire, about election security and safety, especially following the 2020 presidential election.

NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Tilton’s Town Moderator, Helen Hanks, and Assistant Town Moderator Chuck Mitchell about the vote counting process amid a write-in campaign for President Joe Biden and a new affidavit ballot law.


Helen, I want to ask you as town moderator, what is a typical election day look like for you?

Helen Hanks: It's always an early start. You walk right in, and you always just double, triple check and make sure all those statutory signs are up and the space is set up correctly, and you're prepared for checking in all your election workers, swearing them in. And the morning pep talk: 'This is going to be a great day!' And you get ready for a long day.

Now, there are concerns nationally and here in New Hampshire about election security and safety, especially following the 2020 presidential election. Chuck, I know you were the previous town moderator for over 12 years. Have you seen this shift locally in Tilton?

Chuck Mitchell: Yes. Every year we manage to get a certain number of people who want to come, and will be observers. Not necessarily official observers because each each party has a right to have a designated observer, in which case they get a chance to sit a little closer. But you always have a few skeptics, and I think that's just part of the world these days.

So how do you and other election workers make sure that the process is is secure and accurate? And how do you alleviate their their concerns?

Chuck Mitchell: Well, the AccuVote machines that we use every year have been thoroughly tested. They are not connected to the internet in any way. They have a special card which helps to read the marks that are put on the ballots. And that's all that machine does. And the rest of the time, the work that is being done is being done by our ballot clerks, checking people in and making sure that we go through every single ballot at the end of the night looking for any write-ins and making sure that every single vote is counted.

Helen, President Joe Biden is not appearing on the ballot, but Democrats here are launching a write-in campaign, as you know. What's the process for counting those write-ins?

Helen Hanks: So at the end of the night, we separate all the ballots by party, we separate by whom they voted for and then we separate the write-ins. And there's a thorough, slow paced reconciliation of who's been written-in, and you literally count them one by one by one. Whether somebody writes Daffy Duck or President Biden, or whatever the case may be, you write it down just as it's written, and however many times you see that, you count it. And that is part of the return of votes to the Secretary of State's office.

Now, do you need more poll workers for an election like this where there are expected to be a number of write-ins?

Helen Hanks: You need to have a plan and you have a back-up plan, because a couple of realities happen. Whether you expect high voter turnout or not, you have to expect people getting ill, and certainly it has been a season of illness. And yes, around the presidential primary, and in November, we'll have a lot more election officials than we normally have.

Does it take longer to count and then announce those results?

Helen Hanks: Well, we have the Accuvote machine. So that machine, as long as the ballot goes through, the long tape will be read. And then I'll announce that that is not the official vote tally, that we'll then go check the write-ins. And then after I do that, then we'll do another verbal announcement. But the official voting tally goes to the Secretary of State.

Chuck, what's voter turnout looked like over recent elections?

Chuck Mitchell: Over the last ten years, every year it seems that we get more and more people involved. I think a lot of people right now, because of some of the challenges that we face, whether it's been the economy or everything else, you can't help but turn on a TV or a radio without hearing a political ad these days. And so I think more and more people are feeling that it's time to express their opinions and to do it at the polls.

Helen, the primary will be be the first statewide election with New Hampshire's new affidavit ballot law. Let's remind voters first what that is and what voters should know about if they're planning to register.

Helen Hanks: So the affidavit ballot law is unique. It is for a person who has no proof of identification, proof of residency, and no one can vouch for them, as we have commonly heard that on Election Day. You really have to literally have absolutely no proof of whom you are and whether you're a New Hampshire resident [to need an affidavit ballot]. And that doesn't happen very often. In fact, going to one of the Secretary of State's trainings that they offer every year, they indicated last year there was only one affidavit ballot that occurred in the whole of the state.

Really, just one?

Just one. Because usually people can prove they have a residence, they can prove some element. And we have already a preexisting no-voter ID law. So you usually fall in those buckets before you'll end up in the affidavit ballot law. But we are prepared. It is a new law, it is unique. We know the process and the procedure. If that anomaly arises here in Tilton, will be prepared for it. But again, it should be very limited in scope when that's.

What is the process, just so we understand?

Helen Hanks: There are packets that are sent from the Secretary of State's office with forms. And those forms have a pre-stamped pre-return addressed envelope. What happens is we'll take the picture. They'll fill out those forms. We keep one form. They get a ballot that is marked so it will not be fed through the machine. It will put in the side slot. It's marked with the number. Our number would be one for the first affidavit ballot, and that would go in the side pocket. The duplicate of the form with the picture gets sent with the ballot to the Secretary of State's office at the end of the night.

And that affidavit ballot voter has seven days to return proof of identity and residency back to the Secretary of State's office. If they do not, we'll get a notice from the Secretary of State's office to remove that ballot and what they voted for from the total count, and our total count will be adjusted.

What's some of the general guidance that that you'd like to give voters before they do arrive, come Tuesday?

Helen Hanks: Bring your ID, and be prepared. Be patient. Election workers are akin to volunteers in many instances, and they want to help you make sure your vote counts. And just be prepared and ready and patient.

I was going to say that it's interesting you brought up the word 'patience' into that. I wanted to ask about that. Chuck, have you found that voters generally, as the years have gone on, are they generally patient?

Chuck Mitchell: I would say so, yes. Very seldom do you run into major issues as people pass through. I mean, the first step is being advised by a greeter. Then they go to the ballot clerk [who] has to check them in, they show their ID, and then, of course, the process is taking their ballot to a place of privacy. We have both tabletops as well as booths where people can go in and vote in private. And then they turn the ballots in at the machine, and if the ballots are properly marked, they'll go into the machine and be counted. If there is anything with a write-in, they are automatically kicked out. And then we'll have to hand count those later, but I would say people in general are doing fine.

Jackie Harris is the Morning Edition Producer at NHPR. She first joined NHPR in 2021 as the Morning Edition Fellow.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
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