In about half of New Hampshire polling places, votes are still tallied up by hand. And that was the case in Bethlehem until Tuesday night — when a new ballot counting device made its debut, thanks to a community fundraising campaign.
A group called Bethlehem Reimagined led the push for the new machines. Paul Greenlaw, the group’s president, said the idea stemmed in part from his own experience as a first-time ballot counter during March's town elections.
"I left at 2:15 in the morning, and they finished up around 4,” Greenlaw said. “We just thought, in this day and age, there's a better way."
New Hampshire communities have the option to use ballot counting devices, as opposed to manually counting their election results, but they can only use a model that’s been approved by the state's ballot law commission and must find a way to pay for the machines on their own. The state does not provide funding for the equipment.
Representatives from Bethlehem Reimagined made their first formal pitch asking the town’s select board for permission to fundraise for the new machines in April, citing “difficulties with counting” in recent elections.
At that meeting, some raised questions about the machines’ accuracy and security, while others questioned whether shifting away from hand counting would mean shifting away from an electoral tradition that brought community members together.
But by the end of the meeting, the select board gave Bethlehem Reimagined the greenlight to move forward.
A centerpiece of the campaign was a fundraiser called "Ballots and Beer,” hosted at the historic local Colonial Theatre in July. The event — which featured local brews and appetizers donated by nearby restaurants — raised $4,200.
In September, the group donated $4,000 to the town cover the cost of an Accuvote ballot counter and other supplies. According to meetings from the select board meeting where the town accepted that donation, Bethlehem Reimagined held onto the leftover $200 and planned to “add to it in case there are additional expenses in the future.”
While it used to take several dozen pollworkers working late into the night to add up all the votes, far fewer volunteers were needed on Tuesday — and results were ready by 10 p.m. Town Clerk Mary Jackson said she was thankful to everyone who pulled together to make sure the new process ran smoothly.
“We miss our hand counters, but we understand that we’ve moved away from that now,” Jackson said.