Capital Beat: New Hampshire is not Iowa, but some voting concerns remain

  • New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner speaks to the throng of media at the Executive Council Chamber at the State House on Thursday, February, 6, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 2/8/2020 6:53:49 PM

It’s not clear exactly where the trouble started in Iowa.

Perhaps it was user error that caused many of the precincts to report irregular vote totals in last Monday’s caucus, prompting Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez to call for a partial re-canvass. Perhaps it can all be attributed to technical failures with a mobile reporting app. It could have been partly related to unfamiliarity with new caucus rules that added increased reporting requirements.

Whatever the cause, the effect of the days-long delay in results was clear. Candidates were left frustrated, party officials ashamed and voters confused.

This week, New Hampshire’s governor and secretary of state called a throng of reporters to the State House and took to a podium, anxious to promote a counter-message: No worries here.

“Given the news and uncertainty out of Iowa, it’s important that we assure the public that the systems we have in place here in New Hampshire are truly beyond reproach,” said Sununu.

The case to be made is straightforward. New Hampshire hosts a primary, not a caucus, bringing with it the familiarity and dependability that comes with a secret ballot. And because the Granite State has stubbornly stuck to paper ballots while other states experimented, it is also highly secure.

Still, as the Granite State steps into a brighter spotlight than usual this week, New Hampshire’s voting process Tuesday is not immune to criticism. New voting residency requirements for college students and others will go live for the first time. And questions linger over the state’s refusal to allow a Department of Homeland Security review of the cyber defenses of the voter registration file — the one system that could be liable to outside interference.

First, a review of New Hampshire’s process:

On Tuesday, anyone who is registered as a Democrat or an undeclared voter may vote in their local polling place for the Democratic primary – each of which must be open by 11 a.m. Anyone registered as a Republican or undeclared voter may vote in the simultaneous Republican primary. 

The ballots voters use are paper. Federal law requires that accessible voting machines be available to those who need assistance reading or filling out the choices, but the ballots produced by the machines are also paper.

The ballots are collected by more than 6,000 poll workers until polls close at 7. They’re counted, by hand in many towns and by machine in New Hampshire’s cities. The tallies are read out by the election moderator. They’re also passed on to the Associated Press.

That’s how the results make it to the public Tuesday night; the Associated Press and other media outlets use the stream of reported vote totals to make projections and final calls. But it isn’t until the next day that the Secretary of State’s office begins its review and verifies that projection.

After announcing tallies to spectators in the room, the clerk of each town or ward fills out a “return of the vote” form and bring the forms to one of 36 locations across the state, Secretary of State Bill Gardner said. State Police will pick up the forms by 5 a.m, bring them to Concord by 7 a.m., and the votes are compiled.

It’s a stark contrast to Iowa’s caucuses last week, which began the evening with an attempted reporting process through a phone app and ended with a series of phone calls to Democratic party headquarters. But this year’s New Hampshire primary – its 100th ever – has a twist: The voter residency law.

House Bill 1264 aligned the definitions of a domiciled person and a resident in New Hampshire law. That means for the first time, voters casting ballots Tuesday will be declaring their residency – which for those with out-of-state driver’s licenses like college students could mean needing to pay for New Hampshire equivalents.

Backers of the law say it’s a common-sense proposal to put all voters on an equal playing field when it comes to the responsibilities of residency. But the state Democratic Party and the American Civil Liberties Union have argued in court that the law did not clearly spell out its ramifications. And election officials in college towns testified in federal court last year that they received unclear direction from the Secretary of State’s office on how to direct voters.

Meanwhile, student voters themselves seem unaware. Approached by reporters recently, even some politically active students at the University of New Hampshire said they did not know about the new requirements.

On Thursday, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said that the Department of Justice and Secretary of State’s office had released an updated “frequently asked questions” fact-sheet late last year pertaining to the new law. Those FAQ’s are not necessarily going to be present at voting locations, however; there is no requirement for poll workers to present them.

“We have no requirement that they actually be physically present,” he said. “But please hear me: they are on our websites. They have been out there for quite some time. They’re available.”

MacDonald did not say whether poll-workers had been trained on how to explain the new law.

Gardner had a simpler response. “It’s not an election law,” he said, suggesting that educating voters on the motor vehicle implications was not the office’s responsibility.

Then there’s the question of election security. Amid mounting fears of digital election interference, Gardner has been consistent on one point: New Hampshire’s paper-based system makes them difficult to manipulate. Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan reiterated that argument, noting that even for cities that use electronic ballot counting, the machines are disconnected from any internet connectivity.

Moreover, the attorney general’s office will dispatch 50 attorneys to check on the over 300 polling places throughout the day Tuesday, MacDonald announced. And the Justice Department will maintain a hotline all day for town officials to report election issues.

“Our teams in the field are trained to work with the local election officials and to resolve issues as they arise in the first instance at the polling booths,” MacDonald said.

One thing the state hasn’t done: allow a federal review of the cyber defenses around the state’s voter lists. That would be the electronic database containing updated voter information, distributed to clerks ahead of the election and updated with new registrations afterward.

In 2018, Gardner declined the federal review that 30 states had accepted, citing a desire to retain the state’s independence. Those checklists have been printed and distributed to towns, Gardner said.

All things considered, Tuesday’s process will likely be smoother than in the first in the nation caucus state. But with Gardner estimating turnout to hover around half a million voters, the remaining concerns are worth watching for. Still, the governor sought to reassure the nation.

“When you hearing today, the incredible details that go into this process, the checks and balances and the reassurances – this isn’t a whole lot different than anything we normally do,” Sununu said. “This is typically how New Hampshire runs their elections, year after year after year. And again, this is not a 100-year tradition, as much as we see it as a 100-year responsibility of getting it right.”

 (Ethan DeWitt can be reached at, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

Editor’s note: This article was changed to reflect that voters may also cast ballots in the Republican primary on Tuesday/

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