New ballot-counting law, write-ins meant delayed primary election results

·3 min read

Sep. 14—Town election staff were counting votes late into the night Tuesday and early Wednesday morning, with local officials attributing later state primary results to a growing body of state election regulations, and a somewhat higher-than-usual number of write-in candidates on voters' ballots.

In July, Gov. Chris Sununu signed a new law that requires vote-counting machines to automatically spit back ballots where the voter appears to have voted for too many candidates, and election officials are supposed to put those ballots with "overvotes" aside for a hand count. The measure was inspired by the audit of a 2020 race in Windham, where older vote-counting machines misread an errant fold through absentee ballots as a mark for a state representative candidate.

That new law meant a lot more hand-counting Tuesday night, said Secretary of State Dan Scanlan.

"Overvotes, undervotes, all of that had to be counted," said Exeter Town Clerk Andrea Kohler. Exeter didn't post unofficial results until after 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Some town officials, including Salem Town Moderator Chris Goodnow say the regulations have been piling up over the years, creating more work for local election workers and slowing down results.

"The Legislature continues to adopt laws that make it more onerous on the election officials," Goodnow said, "so we have more reporting requirements at the end of the night."

The results for the competitive and closely-watched congressional and Senate Republican primary races came past some newspapers' deadlines, including the Union Leader's, and too late for Tuesday night's television newscasts.

Primary elections involve a lot of work for local election officials in the best of times, Goodnow said. New Hampshire's partisan primaries allow independent voters to vote in either of the major-party primaries, but election officials have to tabulate how many independent voters temporarily change their party affiliations to take each of the party's primary ballots, and how many of those voters revert to independent status after they're done voting.

Then the new voting-machine procedure requiring more hand counts

Goodnow said newer technology, such as electronic poll books already in wide use around the country, would be a good step toward making election officials' jobs easier.

"Our election process is like driving a horse and buggy," Goodnow said. "We don't need a Ferrari. But we need some technology."

Write-in bog-down

Town and city clerks had a lot of write-in candidates to contend with this year, Scanlan said.

Many voters wrote in candidates whose names were not printed on Tuesday's primary ballots, including Manchester Alderman At-Large June Trisciani's write-in campaign for the Democratic nomination for state Senate in District 16.

But Scanlan said many voters wrote in the names of candidates whose names were printed on the ballots, possibly in an effort to make sure their ballots were hand-counted.

Following former President Donald Trump's lead, some conservative political figures and their supporters have expressed persistent doubts about the accuracy of vote-counting machines, and have pushed for hand-counting of ballots.

During March's town meetings, a group introduced articles to several town meeting warrants that would have required all ballots to be hand-counted. None passed. A lawsuit filed earlier this year sought to block the use of vote-counting machines.

Goodnow was frustrated, and worried about the diminishing trust in local election officials. Election Day volunteers usually work 16 to 17 hours on Election Day to count the votes, and the new regulations and write-in efforts — at least, those Goodnow characterized as "nonsensical" — stretch those days even longer.

He worried too many voters have been taken in by vote-manipulation conspiracy theories, and worry their trust in the neighbors and fellow-citizens who run elections is deteriorating.

"We got it right, but it shouldn't be this hard," Goodnow said. "Voters are out there intentionally trying to make our job more onerous, and that's disheartening."