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Why did the primary go smoothly with record turnout? Low tech is good tech

  • Self-described computer hacker Harri Hursti (right) says goodbye to New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner in the Executive Council Chambers on Wednesday, while security regulation crews examine ballots cast during the state’s primary. Hursti, who founded DefCon, the nation’s premiere cyber-security gathering, spent Tuesday observing several polling places around the state. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Security regulation examiners Carvel Tefft (left) and Linda Elkins go over ballots at the Executive Council Chambers in the State House on Wednesday morning. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner (left) talks with Security Regulation examiner John Kiritsy as fellow examiners scurtinize ballots in the Executive Council Chamber at the State House on Wednesday, February 12, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner looks over polling data from the New Hampshire Primary in his office at the State House on Wednesday. Tuesday’s smooth voting was particularly important because turnout was very strong. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner looks over polling data from the Primary in the Executive Council Chambers at the State House on Wednesday morning, February 12, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Published: 2/12/2020 2:27:45 PM

A nationally known computer hacker, a term he wears proudly, helped keep an eye on New Hampshire’s primary Tuesday but says you didn’t need computer smarts to see that it went well.

“One big thing is no lines. When you go around the United States, usually the first thing you see if there are problems are long lines of people who can’t get to vote,” said Harri Hursti, a cybersecurity analyst who founded DefCon Voting Village, an elections-security event in DefCon, the nation’s best-known gathering of people interested in computer security.

Hursti has worked with the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office since about 2005, when he met Secretary of State Bill Gardner at a conference. His presence here for Tuesday’s primary was of particular importance because of the meltdown of the Iowa caucuses caused largely by the use of an untested app. During a discussion Wednesday morning as election officials completed counting votes from around the state he was almost effusive about how things went.

“I talked to people ... There was only one person in the whole of yesterday who said, ‘I’m not happy.’ That is amazing! There’s always that one, but normally it’s, like, hundreds who are not happy ... with an election,” said Hursti, who is Finnish. “I really like how people are happy and how smoothly everything went.”

Hursti was quick to echo a comment that New Hampshire election officials have been making for many years: In voting, low-tech is often good tech.

“Paper ballots, they are important! That gives a lot of confidence, people understand what they’re doing,” he said. “It is a permanent mark of the vote, and it’s understandable to transfer.”

Tuesday’s smooth voting was particularly important because turnout was very strong.

Democrats cast 300,622 ballots, which was more than the 292,000 that had been predicted and a full 46,000 more than were cast in 2016. Republicans cast 156,418 ballots, a sharp drop-off from the contested GOP ballot of four years ago, but still higher than the state had expected.

Secretary of State Gardner said in the morning that it appears the Democratic primary turnout “will be the highest ever by number for either party” and President Trump probably “got more votes in this primary than any person ever got in a presidential primary.”

“On both sides, there’s going to be something to look at ... It’s all good, it’s all participation,” said Gardner.

Gardner attributed the relative lack of lines both to preparation and sufficient staffing, including the thousands of volunteers who counted ballots and checked in voters and otherwise helped – plus the fact that people in New Hampshire were voting all day long.

“They all came out at different times. It was a steady vote all day long, not a surge at 8 in the morning, then 9 to 12 nobody came, and so on,” Gardner said.

Hursti said the operational lesson from the first caucus and the first primary are clear.

“In Iowa, what they did wrong ... was they were changing everything at once, and taking technology that was not tested,” he said. “New Hampshire is about proven technology, proven ways of doing things. ... that takes the training pressure away from the poll-workers, something you are used to doing, your parents were doing before you – everybody knows how the process goes.”

State officials were complimentary, too. But as technology advances, new threats will emerge.

“Let’s understand that hacking will not go away, it is here for every critical infrastructure ... so let’s make everything as resilient and strong against it as we can. Again – paper ballots are wonderful,” Hursti said. “That’s where everybody in America needs to get back to.”

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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