N.H. Secretary of State: Elections are ‘a public process’ that anyone can watch
Election Day is just around the corner. What should New Hampshire voters expect at the polls on Nov. 8? How are election officials preparing? And what happens after the polls close, to make sure the results are counted fairly and accurately?
This will be New Hampshire Secretary of State Dave Scanlan’s first time overseeing these processes as the state’s chief election officer, though he was involved in many elections in his previous role as Deputy Secretary of State.
NHPR Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Scanlan about what voters should know about the steps election officials are taking to make sure Tuesday’s election runs smoothly.
Rick Ganley: What kinds of questions has the Secretary of State's office been getting from voters in these final days before the election?
Dave Scanlan: We really have not been getting that many questions from voters. We've done a lot of preparation for this election. All of the polling places have the ballots that they need and the election materials to conduct the election. The local election officials seem to be pretty well prepared. We had extensive training sessions leading up to this election cycle, and I think everyone at this point is pretty well prepared and we're just waiting for the day itself so that we can collect the votes, count them up and see what it looks like after the election.
Rick Ganley: Do you feel like staffing levels are where they should be for all the municipalities in the state?
Dave Scanlan: Yes. There are usually isolated polling places where there are issues finding enough poll workers, and where we can help the local election officials deal with that. But for the most part, from what we're hearing, the polling places will be properly staffed and we expect Election Day to go very smoothly.
Rick Ganley: Now, the last time all New Hampshire voters went to the polls, we were in the early stages of the pandemic and there were a lot of special provisions put in place. How will voting look different this year?
Dave Scanlan: Voting this year will be pretty much the same as it was before the pandemic hit. So if voters can recall their experience of the 2018 elections, that's pretty much what they're going to experience this time around.
Rick Ganley: Many voters are going to be watching closely for election results on Tuesday night. But there are also lots of steps that need to happen before those results are officially announced. What should voters know about the process of ballot counting and, if there are delays, what might explain that?
Dave Scanlan: Well, number one, the processes that take place at the polling place — including the counting of votes — is a public process. So it's observable. And so at the end of the night, when the polls close, the moderator will close out the voting machine, if one is used in the polling place, and print out what's called a "long tape" from the device. In fact, the moderator will print off several copies of that tape. That tape will have the results for each race on the tape itself. In addition to the tape, there will be ballots that have to be hand-counted at the polling place. Those would include votes that have been returned to the voter because of a perceived overvote on the ballot. Those ballots will be put in a special side bin on the ballot box and be hand counted at the end of the night. We received ballots from our military and overseas personnel, which are printed off by the voter and mailed back to the town clerk or the city clerk. Those ballots will all have to be hand counted as well. Any write in votes that were recorded during the day of the election will have to be hand-counted because the machine will not read those. And once those hand counts have been completed, they will be added to the totals on the machine tape to come up with the final results. And those results will be posted and announced at the polling place when the job is done.
Rick Ganley: Well, in every election, you know, there are honest mistakes or technical hiccups that can come up at the polls. Are there common issues that you and your team are expecting based on past elections? And, you know, what should folks know about the difference between something that might be a routine hiccup and a fixable problem, and something that could be more serious?
Dave Scanlan: The election process is a human process. It takes a lot of volunteers to run the elections at the local level. Our election process is decentralized, so the individuals that are the officials at a polling place are locally elected by their neighbors, and chances are very good that voters, when they go in, know at least one or more of the officials that are actually running the election. Because there are so many individuals involved and because it's a human process, we would expect to see human errors involved in the process, and sometimes that can result in anomalies in the vote counts. And the way those are addressed is through the recount process. A recount is very easy to request by a candidate whose name is on the ballot. As long as the difference between winning and losing is 20% or less, the candidate can request a recount in that race. And when we conduct a recount, those ballots are counted by hand, in front of the candidate or the candidate's representatives, so that every mark that's being counted on the ballot is seen and and known how the ballot has been counted. And if the candidate or a representative objects to a way a ballot was counted, they can ask that that ballot be set aside so that an appeal can be made to the Ballot Law Commission on the recount results.
Rick Ganley: Across the country, we've seen election officials and voters in some cases dealing with intimidation. Is this a concern here in New Hampshire?
Dave Scanlan: We have not heard of any organized efforts for there to be intimidation at the polling place. And that's not to say that it won't happen. We do occasionally see it in individual polling places, with a voter who may be upset over something, but our moderators are well-trained in de-escalation. There are other procedures that are in place. If there's significant disruption in the polling place, obviously it's very important that not only the voters and the poll workers are safe, but that we make sure that the activity, the counting of votes and the casting of ballots is done in a secure way. So there are procedures in place to deal with situations that may come up, and we're prepared for that.