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New Hampshire avoids any election day trouble, officials say

  • Jim MacKay was the first candidate to get to the polls at Ward 4 on Tuesday morning, November 3, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Concord Ward 5 Clerk Charlie Nelson processes absentee ballots at the Boys and Girls Club midday Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A flag is stuck in a stack of absentee ballots as voters arrive and stand in line at Epsom Bible Church on Tuesday morning, November 3, 2020. Long lines have been reported around the area. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Voters arrive and stand in line at Epsom Bible Church on Tuesday morning, November 3, 2020. Long lines have been reported around the area. GEOFF FORESTER

  • A flag is stuck in a stack of absentee ballots as voters arrive and stand in line at Epsom Bible Church on Tuesday morning, November 3, 2020. Long lines have been reported around the area. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Voters utilizing privacy booths at The Barn at Bull Meadow voting area November 3rd, 2020. ALLIE ST PETER

  • New voting area for Concord’s Ward two at the Barn at Bull Meadow on November 3rd, 2020. ALLIE ST PETER

Monitor staff
Published: 11/3/2020 9:13:37 PM

Concerns about interference at polling places by armed observers or open challenges to masked voters on Election Day in New Hampshire proved unfounded.

Instead, on a day when weeks of national jitters over the election process came to a finale, the vote in the Granite State proceeded calmly, professionally, and efficiently, officials said Tuesday.

Town and city moderators up and down the state reported intense spikes in turnout, leading to lengthy morning lines and boxes stacked with absentee ballots. But despite the higher volume, each local polling place moved swiftly to check off voters and prepare and cast absentee ballots, and after the morning rush, many had winnowed down the wait to several minutes per voter.

“Pre-processing was a life-saver,” said Nick Wallner, moderator for Ward 5, referring to the work towns did to help partially sort through absentee ballot envelopes ahead of Election Day. “It really reduced the transaction time for each absentee ballot.”

Not only did the election go smoothly, but few in New Hampshire sought to challenge the way it played out. During the first presidential debate, on Sept. 29, President Donald Trump had issued what sounded like a direct call to action to supporters: “Go into the polls and watch very carefully.”

New Hampshire law allows members of the public to observe the election process inside polling places, provided they are outside the area where voting actually occurs, do not wear or carry campaign paraphernalia, and do not attempt to harass or intimidate voters.

Yet while participation in the vote was high, there was little pushback from supporters of either candidate who opted to stake out the voting process.

In Ward 5’s Green Street Community Center, at the height of foot traffic Tuesday morning, the corner of the room designated for press and public observers was packed, Wallner said. People were curious. But in a matter of hours, that curiosity had thinned out, and the observers largely left. Left behind were party-appointed official challengers – designees allowed to sit near supervisors of the checklists and listen to voters who they believe could be ineligible to vote.

In Concord’s Ward 7, at the Abbott Downing School, the story was the same: a handful of party-chosen challengers, but no observers from pubic and no disruptions.

Across the state, the pattern was similar.

In Dover, Ward 4 moderator Kate Hill says they hadn’t had any of the problems they expected with “armed observers” or “confrontational poll watchers” at their Elks Lodge voting center, NHPR reported.

Instead she said they had “massive turnout” – hundreds in line when polls opened, enough that they needed police help managing it. But it all moved smoothly, and there was no line as of 5 p.m., she said.

But that didn’t mean there weren’t a few snags here and there.

At Ward 5 in Concord, there were designated areas set aside for “masked” and “unmasked” voters with signs pointing each area. A Ward 5 poll volunteer said that at least two voters insisted on voting without a mask but eventually agreed to go to their designated area.

Poll workers at Ward 11 in Manchester say they had to remind several voters that they aren’t allowed to wear anything with a candidate’s name inside the polling place. Moderator Lucille Forest says it’s state policy for voters to remove hats, buttons or any other political garb, NHPR reported.

“Because it’s called campaigning, and you’re not allowed to campaign within 10 feet of the voting,” Forest told NHPR.

After a man refused to take off his Trump hat, Forest had to call Manchester City Hall for guidance.

“I did check with city hall, and we can let him in, because we’re not supposed to stop anyone from voting,” Forest said. “But then we’re supposed to report all the people who refuse to take off any campaigning material.”

That report will go to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office.

Bad ballots

Ward 10 started off the morning with the wrong school board ballots: District B ballots instead of District C. District C candidate Tim Fanelli was the first to notice the error when he went to vote in the Broken Ground School gymnasium at 7:15 a.m., 15 minutes after polls opened. The issue was corrected, but there were some people who had already voted.

Ward 10 moderator Jae Whitelaw said “not too many” people voted with the incorrect ballot. “It got caught fast,” she said. She said the voting machine wouldn’t count the incorrect ballots, which is what caused them to notice, along with Fanelli calling attention to it.

They brought in the new ballots, and handed new ones to the people who were already in the voting booths.

“The people who already had the ballots, we had them sit and stay where they were, then I went around and replaced each ballot,” Whitelaw said.

Quiet overall

The state had three offices set up to take voting-related calls Tuesday, from the Attorney General’s Office, the Secretary of State’s Office, and what is known as ElectionNet, operating out of the state Records and Archives building on South Fruit Street.

All three offices reported nothing unusual by mid-morning despite the very heavy turnout during the first flurry of voting.

“It’s pretty much business as usual,” said Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Chong Yen at 10 a.m. “We’re getting questions about COVID modifications … but nothing out of the ordinary.”

At the State House, Assistant Secretary of State Dave Scanlan echoed that sentiment: “It’s been very typical. We got one call about a voter in a Trump shirt” in a polling place, but that was about it, he said.

Things were busier at the Archives building where three Secretary of State staffers – all named Deb, as it turns out – were acting as the information technology desk for moderators, clerks and checklist supervisors throughout the state dealing with the software and hardware for voting registration and casting ballots. As is often the case with networks, printers were a common issue.

“You have to do it step by step,” said one Deb, who preferred not to give her last name, patiently trying to get one printer back online. “If you plug in one item out of order, you have to start over again.”

One another phone, Debra Cornett, director of training, walked somebody through a computer screen setup – “now click on the radio button” – before ending on a cheerful note: “Glad to do it. We’re here all day, and into the night.”

“It’s much quieter than in the primary,” said Tricia Piecuch, director of the election division. The September party primary was the first time for much of the registration and voting software as well as the first time under COVID-19 restrictions. “We got practice in the primary.”

(Staff writer David Brooks contributed to this report. Material from New Hampshire Public Radio, through the Granite State News Collaborative, was used in this report.)

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