Record turnout, new law changes, partisan battles all raise recount stakes

Nov. 20—CONCORD — An already historic election recount season is expected to become more intense this week, with Republicans and Democrats locked in the closest fight ever for control of the state House of Representatives.

Following a record turnout for a midterm and changes in state election laws, recounts already have changed three outcomes, with one headed to court.

House Deputy Speaker Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, on Friday stopped in on the fifth straight day of recounts at the State Archives Building in Concord to greet Secretary of State David Scanlan.

"Talk about a baptism under fire," Smith said to Scanlan, who is presiding over his first general election recounts since replacing Bill Gardner, who served as secretary of state for 45 years.

New Hampshire has a long history of recounts and plenty of close elections, thanks in part to electing all its state- and county-level officials, including 424 legislators, every two years. But 30 recounts, 28 of them for seats in the 400-member House of Representatives, is a modern-day record.

Over the course of three days, recounts shook the body politic and drew national attention by changing the results of three races:

—A 23-vote victory for Republican Rep. Larry Gagne became a one-vote win for Democrat Maxine Mosley in Manchester Ward 6;

—A 4-vote win for Carroll Republican John Greer turned into a 2-vote win for Rep. Eamon Kelley, D-Berlin; and

—Republican David Walker's 1-vote win in Rochester Ward 4 over eight-term Democratic Rep. Chuck Grassie dissolved into a tie vote.

The drama left the House with 200 elected Republicans, 199 Democrats and the tie race up in the air.

"We don't usually see this. Occasionally a recount may flip a seat over a few ballots but not two days in a row and then a tie," said Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy of Manchester, who has more than a decade of state election law experience.

"These are interesting times."

The 'over vote' factor

Complicating the job, this was the first election under a new law that treats ballots differently when voters choose too many candidates for a single office.

A private vendor reprogrammed all the AccuVote counting machines to kick these "over vote" ballots into a separate compartment.

For the first time, city and town clerks had to record the number of over votes that were cast. Scanlan said the paperwork was not filled out completely for some of those races, including the disputed Manchester Ward 6 race.

When the recounts took place, volunteers who have worked on recounts for decades had to separately process these over vote ballots.

Tensions run high

Inside the crowded recount room, the stress was tangible as counters placed one ballot after another on optical scanners while seated observers from both parties watched them roll by.

Many of these counters have a lot of experience being watched, including Jim Splaine, D-Portsmouth, a former state senator and representative; retired House Information Officer Jim Rivers; and former nine-term state Rep. Lynn Ober, R-Hudson.

The job of partisan observers is to make sure their side got every ballot it was entitled to, counted either by hand or through the electronic ballot machine.

The observers had plenty of help. Volunteers stacked two or three deep behind them were looking on, sometimes chipping in their own suggestions.

Party representatives could question the counting of an individual ballot.

With dozens watching, Scanlan ruled on each questioned ballot.

Either side could challenge Scanlan's decisions to the Ballot Law Commission, which will meet Nov. 28.

"It sure looks like we're going to be very busy," said BLC Chairman Brad Cook, who stopped in to watch the proceedings himself on Wednesday.

Losing and winning candidates generally complimented their treatment by the recount team.

"I've got to hand it to them. This is a really transparent and fair process," said Rep. Cody Belanger, R-Epping, who lost his seat by seven votes.

Before losing in the recount, Republican Gagne gave the counting high marks.

"I watched it. It's long, it's tedious, they check things out very carefully — very little room for error... So, I have full confidence, whichever way it would have turned out," Gagne said before the reversal.

Later, Gagne filed his appeal of the result with the Ballot Law Commission.

Other miscues found

Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, quit working as a counter when Scanlan made a ruling on a challenged ballot not to Edwards' liking.

"I just couldn't stay and watch a decision I had disagreed with," Edwards said later.

Other hiccups were uncovered during this process.

State election officials found a town official reported in error that U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan received 1,106 votes in the tiny town of Columbia, where only 309 cast a ballot on Nov. 8.

The right number was 106 votes.

During the recount of a House race in Brentwood, Scanlan's staff found 27 absentee ballot envelopes not opened or counted by town officials.

Scanlan is asking the Ballot Law Commission to order these ballots be counted because the losing candidate, who asked for the recount, was defeated by 15 votes.

Another recount dropped a 35-vote win for Democrat Carolyn Fleuh-Lobban of Bridgewater to just four votes over Republican John Sellers of Bristol.

Scanlan said local officials admitted "some math errors" played a part.

Scanlan will face a Democratic opponent, former state Sen. Melanie Levesque of Brookline, for the secretary of state position when the Legislature decides on the post for the next two years.

Headed to court

Democratic lawyers have asked a judge to block Scanlan from trying to resume the Manchester Ward 6 recount on Monday. Scanlan said "uncertainty" exists about whether all the ballots had been properly recounted.

"The NH GOP wishes to ignore its own election laws and do another recount in this race in the hopes of overturning an election that was done fairly and counted accurately by the secretary of state's own staff," said Democratic Party Communications Director Colin Booth.

In the lawsuit, Democratic Party legal counsel William Christie said Scanlan is seeking an illegal second recount that would "undermine the confidence" that candidates and voters should have that elections can be trusted.

During an interview before the lawsuit was filed, Scanlan said his duty is to make sure every recount is done completely.

In a draft report, the Scanlan-picked Special Committee on Voter Confidence, acknowledged that in elections, as in all human endeavors, mistakes can be made. Better training and recruitment of local election volunteers and perhaps more compensation could help reduce them.

"All voters, election officials, volunteers and the Legislature which passes election laws needs to be on careful watch to guard against errors or violations," the committee's draft report said.

"They need to adjust the system as new issues arise or new methods become available, if they are consistent with our time-tested tradition of voting."