Voting advocates say absentee ballot errors demonstrate flaws in system

Published: 10/13/2018 8:16:10 PM

There are ballot errors – the misspellings, typos and misalignments that can prompt last-minute changes ahead of Election Day.

Then there are errors, andStephen D’Angelo found himself on the receiving end of a major one.

On Oct. 6, a Saturday, the Democratic nominee for Rockingham County District 4 received a flood of emails with alerts from supporters. The absentee ballots had been sent out to voters, the emails said, and D’Angelo’s name wasn’t on them.

In the box for the Democrat in his House race, instead, was D’Angelo’s  primary opponent Russell Norman, whom he had defeated in September by five votes.

One Republican representative from the same five-seat district, Jess Edwards, had posted a screenshot of the ballot on a Facebook page.

“I thought he was kidding,” D’Angelo, of Chester, said in an interview. “I thought it was a joke at first. I looked on the secretary of state’s website and lo and behold, it was accurate.”

It was the weekend and D’Angelo had little immediate recourse. By Tuesday, the error had been corrected and the ballots replaced, according to the secretary of state’s office.

But by then the ballots had already been sent out, and the federal deadline for overseas absentee ballots – Sept. 22 – had passed.

Amplifying the problem: D’Angelo wasn’t alone. Two more candidates discovered errors on their absentee ballots. Tammy Siekmann, a Democratic state Senate candidate from Londonderry, was listed in the Libertarian column; Gray Chynoweth, a Manchester Democrat running for Executive Council, was in the Democratic column but with a Libertarian label. All three candidates have since had their ballots corrected and replaced.

For critics of the secretary of state’s office, the errors add to evidence that the review process for ballots is flawed and error-prone.

“With the high number of offices and candidates on each ballot in New Hampshire, mistakes are possible, but the errors and inconsistencies … are unacceptable,” said Liz Wester, state director of the voting advocacy group America Votes, which has called on the state to undergo a review of all ballots for accuracy.

The secretary of state’s office says that the mistakes are few, carry limited impact and were quickly corrected. But the incidents, at the very least, demonstrate the limitations of the present system.

Under the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, passed in 2009, states must prepare and send out absentee ballots to voters living overseas. New Hampshire happens to have one of the latest primary dates in the country, as this column has noted before.

That combination means that the secretary of state’s office has only about a week – and in some years days – between the primary voting day and the deadline to type up, format and issue the ballots.

Before it can do that, it must validate all results and carry out any requested recounts, which candidates may request up to three days after the results come in. All federal, state and local races must be certified, including the 400 seats in the state House, resulting in over a thousand candidates on the ballots at the end.

With such a daunting load, and mere days to pull it off, it might seem surprising that there aren’t more errors every year. According to Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan, the fact there aren’t is a testament to the office.

“The system is pretty well equipped,” he said. “By the time you get to the day of the election, the ballots are accurate. We’re talking about 50, give or take, votes that have been affected, but in the end all of those voters are going to receive a corrected ballot and have an opportunity to vote on those.”

To Scanlan, the process is working as intended. Ballots are released digitally to eligible overseas voters, in compliance with the federal act. They are then printed and distributed to the towns, whose clerks review them for accuracy. Then they’re made available to voters who are leaving the state but staying within the country, who may pick them up as they stop by the office.

Any errors can be corrected, Scanlan said; new absentee ballots can be printed and those voters may vote again. Digital ballots sent overseas can be replaced and the voters notified through a simple email message.

Those who vote with error-laden ballots represent a small percentage of the overall electorate, Scanlan added. The key part, he said, was that the ballots are corrected before Election Day itself, when most people vote.

“Those things get picked up, and they get picked up fairly early when the absentee ballots are picked up, so that by the time you get to the election, there are very few issues,” he said.

And if any legitimate dispute came up after the election over errant absentee ballots, the election could be taken to the Ballot Law Commission, or even the Legislature, which can review the outcome and potentially authorize a special election, Scanlan said.

But that’s cold comfort to D’Angelo, who by default can’t receive any votes from ballots cast before the correction. If those voters aren’t able to vote again, those votes are lost to him forever.

The bigger problem, D’Angelo says, is the lack of an adequate review window to allow candidates to check the ballots themselves, he said. While the office releases “sample ballots” online for each town, the release of those ballots is not coordinated with towns, who may have already released the ballots at their office.

Many may be unaware of the errors until the ballots are already released.

“I think that the secretary of state’s office should inform people that are going to be candidates in a primary or in any general election that they need to check the ballots to make sure that they’re accurate soon after ... and they should be told where to look for that and then verify that,” he said.

In D’Angelo’s case, the mislabeling of the Democratic nominees in his race appears to date back to just after the primaries. A spreadsheet released after the primary results showing vote counts for each candidate showed D’Angelo receiving 601 votes to Norman’s 596, yet Norman’s name was bolded, indicating victory.

An aide to Colin Van Ostern, one of the challengers for Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s position, called the office to inform them of the error back in September, according to Van Ostern. But the mistake persisted onto the ballot itself.

Scanlan said he understands the concern but argued that allowing all candidates to weigh in on ballots before they’re released would be impractical. Absent a move by the Legislature to move up the primary date or additional funding, Scanlan added, the office has been working as efficiently as possible within the constraints.

“I think that any administration would have the same issues that we have, and the people that are making those suggestions I don’t think understand the complexity and all the moving parts to this process,” he said.

Those challengers see it differently, of course.

“The secretary of state was notified of their error weeks before the incorrect ballots were printed and sent to voters,” Van Ostern, said in a statement. “The way to avoid incorrect ballots is to elect a secretary of state who takes accountability for getting the ballots correct.”

D’Angelo said it was a question of priorities for the office.

“They’re so concerned about voter fraud, that that seems to take what we’re doing here as a backseat to what is really their main function: to make sure that they give out accurate ballots to each town for people to vote for,” he said. “That’s their main primary goal.”

For his part, D’Angelo doesn’t have plans to challenge the office over its errors. Whether that changes, he said, is going to come down to what happens on Election Day, and how close the race turns out.

“I’ll just wait and see,” he said. “I can’t really predict where I’m going to go with this.”

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




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