New ballot-counting reform will kick out overvotes

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Jun. 7—CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law a pivotal ballot-counting reform Tuesday that grew out of the post-election ballot mess from the 2020 election in Windham.

The bipartisan measure will, for the first time, require vendors to program vote-counting machines to divert into a side compartment any ballot that appears to have too many marks on it for a single office.

The bill's prime sponsor, Hillsborough Democratic state Rep. Marjorie Porter, said the change should prevent a repeat of the chaos in Windham.

If this had been in place before the 2020 election, it would have immediately flagged the absentee ballots that were incorrectly read by Windham's automated voting machines on Election Day because of folds through one of the candidates' names.

After a hand recount, all four Republican candidates for state representative in Windham picked up nearly 300 votes apiece.

The leading Democratic candidate lost nearly 100 votes after the recounts.

A never-before-used folding machine was deployed in Windham to cope with the high number of absentee ballots.

A forensic audit done last summer confirmed that machine often left a mark through the Democratic candidate's name, which was read as a vote.

In the future, any overvote ballot would be placed in an "auxiliary bin" to be hand-counted by local election officials after the polls close.

The legislation was one of 48 bills Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law Tuesday.

During the hearing on Porter's bill (HB 1163), she pointed out Windham wasn't the only place where overvotes happened.

Porter noted that in Derry nearly 848 ballots — 5% of the total — had at least one overvote on them.

Porter and election activists who looked at the election tapes said they identified other discrepancies in machines:

—In Windham, one voting machine had 292 overvotes (8.9% of ballots), and another machine had only 18 overvotes (1.3% of their ballots);

—In Merrimack, one machine had 396 overvotes (22.8%), and another had only 14 (less than 1%);

—In Manchester, one machine had 263 overvotes (15%), and another had only 60 (2.4%), and

—In Hampton, one machine had 121 overvotes (9.5%), and another had only 26 (1.7%).

Newer voting machines likely to win approval

All this becomes critical as New Hampshire election officials appear ready to move on to approving more modern ballot-scanning machines.

For nearly three decades, the state has only certified the AccuVote counting machine for use in New Hampshire elections.

The machine processes about 85% of all ballots cast statewide.

The Ballot Law Commission and municipal clerks have concluded these machines are so old that it's difficult to get replacement parts.

Next month, the BLC will hold a demonstration with vendors where the next generation of vote-scanning counters will be displayed.

This is expected to lead to the BLC approving other companies to supply cities and towns with vote-counting technology.

Many states, including Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, already require their automated voting machines be fine-tuned this way to kick out overvotes.

Secretary of State David Scanlan got behind Porter's bill and told the Special Committee on Voter Confidence recently that it is one election law change that will lead to more ballot transparency.

The federal Help America Vote Act requires overvotes to be treated as outlined in this new law.

New Hampshire has been exempt from that law because it has a paper ballot backup and voters are given instructions on how to vote properly.

klandrigan@unionleader.com