After planning for the worst, N.H. election officials report a peaceful day at the polls
After months of preparation amid intense scrutiny on voting across the country, many Granite Staters cast their ballots in Tuesday's midterms without a hitch.
As polls closed Tuesday evening, New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan said voting went smoothly across the state: There were no major interruptions due to pollworker or voter intimidation, and no significant voting problems.
And despite ongoing efforts to undermine confidence in the election process in New Hampshire and nationally, turnout in the Granite State was also poised to hit a record high. While the final count is still shaping up, Scanlan said New Hampshire may have broken 600,000 voters for the first time during a midterm election.
“I think we’re really fortunate in New Hampshire that the voters here respect the voting process,” Scanlan said. “And for the most part they showed up and they voted and they left, and that’s the way it should be.”
Scanlan said the issues that came up Tuesday — including long lines at polling places and voting machine glitches in some towns — were minor, isolated and routine.
That’s likely a credit to the time and energy state and local election officials invested ahead of the election to ensure voters could cast their ballots with ease and confidence. Part of that preparation included bracing for potential threats at the polling place, amid a tense national political environment. In the end, those threats never materialized — but pollworkers said they felt secure heading into Tuesday.
“You’re almost preparing for the extreme,” said Windham Town Clerk Nicole Merrill, who reported a calm day at her busy polling place. “All we can do is go by the guidance of the state and be prepared for whatever’s necessary. And if it happens, we know what to do. And if it doesn't, great.”
Hollis Town Moderator Drew Mason said he was also on the lookout for potentially tense moments at the polling place. As usual, Mason worked with the Hollis Police Department on a safety plan for Election Day. While there were no issues in Hollis as of midday Tuesday, the national political environment was weighing on Mason nonetheless.
“There’s enough things happening across the country that causes people to pause a little bit,” Mason said. “The fact that people are doing that anywhere in the country is disturbing to me.”
The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office reported their election hotline was active, with about 270 calls from officials and voters. The questions were routine and expected, said Deputy General Counsel Myles B. Matteson.
Matteson noted the Attorney General’s office received complaints about the distribution of absentee ballots in Hooksett ahead of the election and is conducting a review of the issue.
The high turnout seen on Tuesday was a blessing and a curse for one of the state’s largest communities. In Derry, many voters faced a major traffic jam on their way to the town’s lone polling place, a local church. While the polls were originally scheduled to close at 8 p.m., Derry officials kept them open later so that people who were waiting in line in their vehicles at that time could still vote.
One Derry resident, Bernadette Gourde, was planning to vote immediately after work but ended up sitting in traffic leading up to the polls for an hour and a half. Eventually, she pulled off to park on the side of the road and walked the last half mile to cast her ballot. She said the chilly night time stroll was worthwhile.
“It’s really important for everyone to get their voices heard,” she said. “I feel like it would have been a waste of my participation in this country to give up and go home or not make it in time, so I wanted to make sure my voice was heard as well.”
Gourde said she hopes the town addresses the long lines in the future, perhaps by setting up another polling place. Town election officials said there are pros and cons to that idea, and potential drawbacks include interrupting school days or causing traffic in other parts of town.
Elsewhere, Scanlan said a minor issue with a ballot counting machine was reported in Franklin, after polls closed, but town officials were able to work with the company that services the devices to fix the issue.
Three other New Hampshire towns piloted new kinds of voting machines that use open-source software, meaning anyone can review the code used to read ballots. Speaking Tuesday evening, Scanlan said those pilots had “limited success,” and the technology seemed to work well — except in one town, Newington, where it stopped working early on. Newington officials moved quickly to switch back to an old AccuVote machine, however, and voting was not interrupted.
Heading into Tuesday, election officials cautioned that — even if most things ran smoothly at the polls — it could still take a while to tally results.
A new law, spurred by ballot counting mistakes in Windham in 2020, changes how “overvoted” ballots are processed. The reforms were meant to ensure that the ballots of voters who appear to have selected too many candidates filled in are counted accurately, but some activists who mistrust ballot counting machines have leveraged this new process to pursue more widespread hand counting — a process that’s more labor and time intensive.
In Derry, election moderator Lisa Hultgren said she recruited more staff for Tuesday evening in anticipation of having extra ballots to hand count. During the primary, she had eight people counting votes. On Tuesday, she had 40. While the new law creates more work for election officials, she said it’s ultimately a good thing.
“It's a positive thing for voters because they get a more accurate count,” she said.
It’s less helpful, Hultgren said, when voters intentionally fill out their ballots to try to provoke a hand count because they mistrust the ballot counting devices, as some voters in Derry and elsewhere did on Tuesday. It creates more work for election officials, she said, and it could lead to unintentional voter errors.
She’s hopeful that election workers can prevent this kind of maneuver by continuing to work on winning back voter confidence.
“I'm hoping with the kind of education that we've been putting out into the community, more people are aware of how things do work and don't work,” she said. “And they'll be less inclined to do things like write in a candidate instead of filling in a bubble.”
Election workers in some other communities also reported receiving requests from voters to hand count their ballots. Ahead of the election, state officials gave local pollworkers the discretion to grant those requests if it seemed like that would help to “avoid a disruption in the polling place by an insistent voter.”
Election authorities have repeatedly vouched for the accuracy of the state’s ballot counting devices as more reliable than hand counting, but those machines have nonetheless become the target of unfounded conspiracies and campaigns to eradicate the technology. Every polling place in New Hampshire that uses a ballot counting device is required to hold a public test of that machine before the election. Those tests, however, aren’t always widely attended.
“I wish people would show up when moderators and town clerks do their tests, and you can see what goes on before the election,” said Winchester Moderator Denis Murphy, who received some hand count requests from voters who said they mistrusted the ballot counting machines.
Swanzey Moderator Bruce Tatro said he also encountered several voters who preferred a hand count. Still, he affirmed his faith in the accuracy of the state’s vote counting devices.
“I trust the machines more than I trust people counting, because it’s easy to make a mistake when you’re hand counting, especially when you're doing a lot of ballots,” he said. “But that’s their option, so we make sure to give them that option so they don’t feel like they can’t vote because they don’t put it in the machine.”
Even as some New Hampshire voters were expressing skepticism while casting their ballots, plenty of others said they continue to have faith in the state’s election systems.
“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t confident in my vote,” said Ruth Dreifus, while waiting in line outside Londonderry’s polling place Tuesday evening.
And before the polls even closed, some election officials were already thinking about how to improve things for the next election.
“Next year, we’re hoping to open up our polls at 7 rather than 8 a.m., too,” said Loudon Town Moderator Rodney Phillips, “to make it more convenient for working folks.”
NHPR’s Paul Cuno-Booth contributed reporting.