In a connected world, New Hampshire voting machines are isolated – by choice

  • Deputy Town Clerk Lisa Carlson (left) signs the activity log as a witness to Town Clerk Ben Bynum’s removal of one of the red seals protecting Canterbury’s electronic ballot-counting device on Thursday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ photos / Monitor staff

  • Canterbury’s electronic ballot-counting device is seen last week.

  • A red seal secures the memory card slot of Canterbury’s electronic ballot-counting device as seen Thursday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • A red seal secures the memory card slot of Canterbury’s electronic ballot counting device as seen on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Canterbury’s electronic ballot counting device is seen on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. The red seals prevent unknown tampering of the device. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Canterbury’s electronic ballot counting device is seen on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. The red seals prevent unknown tampering of the device. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Published: 10/18/2016 12:06:25 AM

With concerns being raised across the country about the possibility that hackers could interfere with electronic voting machines, it’s timely to note that in a world of smart devices, New Hampshire’s ballot-counting machines are deliberately dumb.

Say what you will about rigged elections and the chance of election officials missing cases of voter fraud: When it comes to the mechanical end of the state’s voting system, it’s a tight process.

Security cameras, thermostats and even some automobiles might interact online these days, but not the hundreds of ballot-counting machines stored in town halls across New Hampshire.

“They cut the pins off, so you can’t put the modems back in, even if you wanted to,” said Ben Bynum, town clerk in Canterbury, as he showed the town’s single AccuVote machine, locked away in a vault until pre-election testing begins.

The only way to change these machines is to insert a memory card programmed by LHS Associates in Salem, and you can’t do that unless you first cut off a metal tamper-proof seal. And if you don’t record the proper identification numbers in the proper place in the proper book with a the signature of a witness, that will raise suspicions from people like Bynum and Deputy Town Clerk Lisa Carlson.

“The secretary of state’s office comes and checks these, makes sure we’re doing them properly,” said Bynum regarding the book, which is called, with bureaucratic solemnity, the Election Ballot Counting Device Activity Log.

Similarly, there’s no way to get voting results out of that machine to the waiting world unless a human reads the numbers and names from a paper tape it generates – much to the annoyance, it must be said, of newspapers facing election night deadlines.

All of this is a deliberate decision made some 20 years ago when New Hampshire chose AccuVote ballot-reader machines as its official technology for high-speed ballot counting. At the time, many places were considering all-electronic voting machines, but the desire to keep ballots as a hard-copy backup led Secretary of State Bill Gardner and New Hampshire lawmakers to go with machines that optically “read” marks people make on paper.

That’s fine with Bynum. “I like that we still have ballots to check results,” he said.

In fact, state law requires all recounts of contested races to be done by hand, using those paper ballots.

This backup came in handy after the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, when questions were raised after results between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton diverged greatly from pre-election polls. At the time, the state’s optical readers were made by Diebold Inc., whose touch-screen voting machines had well-publicized problems elsewhere, so conspiracy theories flew about rigged results.

Party officials eventually paid for a statewide recount, and for five weeks, people sat in the secretary of state’s offices (and a few spillover rooms) and hand counted ballots from all over New Hampshire. They were about two-thirds done when the recount ended because the number of discrepancies found compared with official tallies was so tiny that the conspiracy theories dried up.

AccuVote machines are now made by a company called Dominion Voting Systems, following some complicated business maneuvers: In 2009, a firm called ES&S acquired Premier, the division of Diebold that made optical scanners, but it sold it to Dominion in 2010 because the U.S. Department of Justice had concerns about industry consolidation.

In past decades, New Hampshire has allowed other voting systems, including mechanical vote-counting machines and a system using magnetic ink from special pens, in which voters had to complete a broken arrow to mark their choice, rather than fill in a circle. None of those are allowed anymore.

Communities are, however, still allowed to count ballots by hand, as is done in a number of smaller towns in the Concord area, including Salisbury, Danbury, Webster and Northfield. About half of the state’s 221 towns still hand count – none of its cities do.

Even Canterbury still hand counts votes at town meeting, when the number of ballots cast is small enough to make the process feasible. It uses the AccuVote machine only at the busier state elections, to help out the volunteers who would otherwise be stuck with the job.

Hand counting is generally a fiscal decision, since it costs about $7,000 to buy a machine and several hundred dollars to get the programmed cards before each election.

Speaking of those cards, how do Bynum and other clerks know they’ve been properly programmed? Testing, he said.

Clerks are required to mark up at least 50 test ballots, including some incorrect votes (e.g., two names marked when only one seat is open), and then run them through each voting machine in four configurations – top first and bottom first, both right-side up and upside-down – to see whether the resulting tape

The rectangular ballots won’t fit in the slot sideways, nor will multiple ballots fit, Bynum said.

“Even if you have just two ballots stuck together, they won’t go through,” he said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of 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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