As election distrust swirls, three N.H. communities were under a microscope during the primary
Even after polls closed Tuesday evening in Windham, a small group of voters and candidates stuck around in the high school gym. As ballot counting machines softly hummed in the background, some began recording with their phone cameras, leaning over a line of red tape, looking for mistakes.
Windham was one of three communities — along with Bedford and Laconia’s Ward 6 — under a microscope during Tuesday’s primary. Each was subject to extra oversight from state-appointed election monitors due to what the Attorney General described as serious, but unintentional, mistakes in ballot handling during the November 2020 election.
While rare, the appointment of an election monitor is not entirely unprecedented in recent election cycles. But the added scrutiny comes at a time when election officials across the state and country are feeling mounting pressure and diminishing public trust.
Secretary of State David Scanlan said having three election monitors in one season is especially unusual. But he said the unique circumstances of voting during the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the challenges that led to the appointment of the state election monitors.
“The issues that resulted in requiring a monitor being assigned to the polling place, at least in two of the polling places, were a direct result of the high volume of absentee ballots that were observed in 2020,” Scanlan said. “Of course, because of the pandemic, there were a lot more voters using absentee ballots than showing up at the polling place.”
In Windham, some absentee ballots were folded incorrectly in 2020, causing scanners that tally votes to interpret some of the folds as votes. Though these issues drew the eyes of conspiracy theorists and former President Donald Trump as part of a broader effort to delegitimize the 2020 election, an audit by outside election experts found “no basis to believe that the miscounts found in Windham indicate a pattern of partisan bias or a failed election.”
Eugene Van Loan, the election monitor assigned to Windham on Tuesday, said he’s been sensitive to this kind of public distrust.
“I think that’s very unfortunate because I have great faith in our election processes. I have great faith in the people that run them,” said Van Loan, who served for years as Bedford’s moderator. “Some level of trying to convince people that things are fair and accurate is almost as important or, let's say, of some significant importance, as the reality that they are fair and that they are accurate.”
Van Loan was clear that his job during the state primary wasn’t to interact with voters. Instead, he spent his day watching over the voting process, answering questions from poll workers and assisting election officials. About an hour before polls closed, he said things seemed to be going smoothly. Along with the other state-appointed monitors, Van Loan will submit a formal report about what he observed at the polls.
In Laconia, the Attorney General’s office found that issues including uncounted ballots and some double-counted votes were a result of the election moderator’s “complete failure to understand the duties and operations of elections and his role as the moderator.” But as in Bedford and Windham, state officials found no evidence of deliberate or intentional misconduct – only carelessness.
As the election monitor assigned to help ensure those mistakes weren’t repeated, Bonnie Winona MacKinnon drew on her years of experience as Nottingham’s moderator.
“We're taking notes about everything,” she said. “We're pointing things out. We teach. We do some teaching. And mostly we're just here to help them.”
On Tuesday, MacKinnon said she’d made sure election officials didn’t take seals off of the voting machines and checked each compartment of the machines for old ballots. (State officials said a Laconia election official discovered 179 uncounted ballots from multiple 2020 elections in the side compartment of a ballot collection box in November 2021.) MacKinnon also directed ballot clerks to announce voters’ names out loud as they checked in, as required by New Hampshire law.
MacKinnon’s presence at the polls on Tuesday was especially valuable for Catherine Tokarz, who was appointed to her position as the new moderator in Laconia’s Ward 6 less than 24 hours before polls opened.
“I feel more confident to be able to do my job,” she said. “I have no experience in this other than voting. I have a question and I go to them. So I feel as though every election place should have a monitor.”
The city had trouble finding someone to fill the role after the former moderator resigned in the wake of the Attorney General’s investigation into the mistakes made in 2020. While the position was advertised, nobody applied.
In Bedford, a pile of absentee ballots was not counted in 2020 because an election official inadvertently moved them; state and local election officials also failed to promptly share that information with the public after they discovered the mistake.
On Tuesday, moderator Brian Shaughnessy said he also appreciated the extra oversight from the state this time around. Still, he said, persistent false claims about the 2020 presidential election have made his job harder lately.
“It’s been very difficult to be an election official, because it’s frustrating,” he said. "We know the checks and balances are in place. It frustrates me to no end because all of this is based on a big lie.”
Earlier this year, Shaughnessy lost out on a nomination as a circuit court judge after executive councilors from both parties criticized his role in the mistakes made in Bedford's 2020 election.
While some voters at each of the state-monitored polling places expressed continued skepticism and distrust about the security of elections, others said they were confident that their vote would be counted and that the election process was safe.
Laconia voter Sean McGuire said his experience was thorough and simple, as always.
“I know all these people; they still make me show my license,” he said. “Then you have to say your name. I mean, it's important because there's some integrity to that.”
Dan Doherty, who also hit the polls in Laconia Tuesday, said his focus was on moving on.
“I've always been inspired to vote no matter what," he said. "What happened in the past happened in the past. And I'm looking forward to the future more than anything else.”
But as towns and voters look to move past the mistakes of 2020, the pressure on the primary could be a preview of what towns might need to brace for in the general election later this fall.