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As misinformation swirls, many N.H. towns will vote on ballot counting machines

A voter places a ballot into an AccuVote ballot counting machine in December 2021 in the town of Greenland, N.H.
Todd Bookman
/
NHPR
A voter places a ballot into an AccuVote ballot counting machine in December 2021 in the town of Greenland, N.H.

Voters in the town of Milton, N.H., will this week be asked to weigh in on more than 30 different local issues, things like the school budget, the next fire chief and even the type of lightbulbs used in streetlamps.

But another item on Milton's town meeting ballot could reshape the town's election process itself: Residents will decide whether election officials should continue using a ballot counting machine, known as the AccuVote, or revert to a hand count.

Milton is one of more than a dozen New Hampshire communities voting on vote-counting this town meeting season, after activists who question the accuracy and security of the state's ballot counting machines launched a campaign to ditch them.

The activists behind the push to hand-count all ballots contend, without proof, that the machines can be hacked or rigged, and their effort follows baseless claims of widespread issues with the 2020 election.

State and local election officials say the AccuVote — the only approved ballot counting machine in New Hampshire — has proven itself reliable at the polls and in an exhaustive outside audit held last spring.

Towns in New Hampshire decide how they want to count votes. According to the secretary of state's office, 114 communities continue to hand-count, but they represent just about 10% of the state's voters.

For many towns, the decision to use a ballot counting machine comes down to speed, the availability of Election Day workers and expectations of residents.

"We live in an instantaneous world, and everybody seems to want the answer now, or five minutes after polls close," said Chris Jacobs, Milton's town administrator. "If you hand-count, there will be no instantaneous decision."

"We want the machines out"

AccuVotes, which have been in use since the late 1980s, are decidedly low-tech: They plug into the wall for electricity but don't connect to the internet; they rely on memory cards that get programmed before each election by a locally based vendor.

For decades, the machines were widely seen as efficient workhorses of the democratic process. But after the 2020 election, when some supporters of President Donald Trump began looking for scapegoats to blame his election loss on, the AccuVotes came under fire.

In hearings at the State House and more recently during town deliberative sessions, opponents of the machines have alleged they can be hacked, rigged or otherwise compromised. Some Republican lawmakers, backed by the same activists pushing the bans at a town level, have proposed banning the machines statewide.

"It is shocking to me that we would allow machines to wipe away the voices of the citizens of New Hampshire," Brenda Towne, a resident of the town of Stratham, said during public testimony on one such bill earlier this year. "We want the machines out."

There is no evidence the machines have wiped out votes.

Pointing to Windham issue as proof

But many activists point to what happened in the town of Windham in 2020 to justify their suspicions. There, the AccuVote machines didn't count the ballots correctly on election night for one of the town's legislative races. While a hand recount confirmed that the machines correctly identified the winning candidates, the original machine tally was off by several hundred votes.

An extensive audit conducted by a trio of independent election security experts would later determine that the machines weren't the root cause of the problem. Instead, the auditors found that some of Windham's ballots were folded improperly, leaving creases that looked like votes when the ballots were passed through the machines.

New Hampshire state troopers deliver ballot counting machines to the site of an audit of a state legislative election in the town of Windham. Auditors concluded in a 2021 report that miscounts in the election were caused by the way ballots were folded.
Josh Reynolds / AP
/
AP
New Hampshire state troopers deliver ballot counting machines to the site of an audit of a state legislative election in the town of Windham. Auditors concluded in a 2021 report that miscounts in the election were caused by the way ballots were folded.

But nearly a year later, some activists in New Hampshire — and across the country — refuse to accept that explanation. Windham is one of the communities where activists have successfully petitioned to get a warrant article on the local ballot that would require hand-counting in future elections.

In social media posts and campaign mailers, groups like Hand Count NH and the New Hampshire Voter Integrity Group have made distorted claims about the Windham audit to encourage other communities to ban their machines.

What happened in Windham has also become political fodder for Trump allies seeking to undermine the validity of the 2020 election, like election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO.

"People in New Hampshire do not want machines," Lindell recently claimed on his internet talk show, as he interviewed one of the local activists campaigning against AccuVote devices.

Lindell also visited Manchester, N.H., last month for an "election security" presentation targeted toward state and local officials, where he amplified the grassroots campaign that has landed the question on many town ballots this year.

On hand-counted ballots: "It is impossible that errors would not be made"

Getting ahead of misinformation about New Hampshire's vote counting processes is a priority for the state's top election official, Secretary of State Dave Scanlan.

"Given the climate that we have today, we just have to do a better job of being transparent and explaining the process and helping people understand that the system that we have is a really really good one," Scanlan said.

Scanlan, who has helped to oversee New Hampshire elections for decades, noted that most Election Day mistakes aren't caused by machines. He said math errors caused by humans trying to hand-tally lots of ballots are more common.

That risk of a simple tallying error isn't lost on Margaret Byrnes, executive director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association. While she said the group doesn't have a formal position on the town ballot initiatives, she cautioned that a sudden transition from machines to a hand count in many larger towns would likely lead to even more errors.

"Imagine these sort of exhausted people hand-counting ballot after ballot with 20, 30, 40 questions," Byrnes said. "It is impossible that errors would not be made."

There are steps built into the process to avoid those kinds of errors on the machine side, too. Before every election, communities that use AccuVote machines are required to test them — in public, for anyone to observe — to make sure they're working correctly.

Just a few weeks ago, Jacobs, the Milton administrator, gathered with other town officials and volunteers to test their AccuVote machine inside the local town hall.

The machine, which resembles a large paper shredder, was wheeled out of storage and dusted off. A stack of sample ballots was then fed into the machine in multiple directions, including those with extraneous marks and write-in candidates.

As the test wrapped up, Jacobs clicked a button on the AccuVote, signaling that it was time for the machine to start spitting out results.

Over the whir of register tape, Jacobs said he supports people in the town taking a close look at how their elections are managed.

Still, he said, "at this local level, within this community, the process is pure. It is not corrupted."

But despite being given an opportunity to come inspect the machines during the test run, nobody from the public, including those who mistrust these machines, attended the event.

Copyright 2022 New Hampshire Public Radio

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.