Windham audit blames discrepancy on folded ballots

·4 min read

Jul. 13—The discrepancy found in Windham's state representative races last November was caused by folds in mailed absentee ballots being misread by ballot-counting machines, not by partisan misbehavior, the forensic audit team concluded.

In its 121-page report released Tuesday, the three-man audit team sought to put to rest suspicions about the 300-vote gains all four Republican candidates achieved after a hand recount of the Nov. 3 ballots.

"We found no basis to believe that the miscounts found in Windham indicate a pattern of partisan bias or a failed election," wrote Harri Hursti, Mark Lindeman and Phillip Stark, the three auditors chosen by the state and the town to conduct the review.

In the first count on the night of Nov. 3, Republican Julius Soti won the fourth state representative seat by 24 votes over Democrat Kristi St. Laurent.

But Soti's win grew to 420 votes after a Nov. 12 hand recount requested by St. Laurent.

All four GOP candidates picked up roughly 300 votes apiece, while St. Laurent's vote total dropped by about 100 after the hand recount.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner and Attorney General John Formella said they will review the report, but will have no public comment on it until after they issue their own findings and submit them to the town of Windham.

The legislation mandating the audit (SB 43) gives the state officials 45 days to prepare their own response to the auditors' report.

Gov. Chris Sununu said he was glad the audit found no significant voting irregularities.

"No surprises, and I think it continues to confirm that our system has integrity," Sununu said.

Folding machine blamed

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than three times as many New Hampshire voters cast absentee ballots in November than ever before.

Dealing with that unprecedented flood of absentees, Windham election officials deployed a different folding machine to quickly send out ballots to those who requested them.

This machine produced an unusually large number of ballots with folds that, because of their location, were interpreted by the ballot-counting machines as votes for St. Laurent, the report said.

That led to many ballots not being counted because the machine recorded them as "overvotes."

The same ballots were properly counted when the ballot was examined by hand.

"Fundamentally, the large discrepancy between election night totals and both hand counts in the state representative contest in Windham can be attributed to unforeseen consequences and misfortune," the report said.

"Harried election officials borrowed a folding machine to send out thousands of absentee ballots more quickly, and votes on roughly 400 ballots were miscounted as a result."

There was no evidence the folding machine had been adjusted to create this outcome, the report said.

"The machine documentation does not even describe how to adjust the fold location," it added.

The auditors suggested state officials consider not sending out folded absentee ballots in the future.

This would make those mailings more expensive as it would require the ballots be placed in larger envelopes. It could also subject these larger envelopes to more damage once they went through the mail.

"Miscounts aside, folded ballots are liable to misfeed, complicating ballot processing on Election Day," the report said.

"Sending out ballots flat, in larger envelopes, could be a worthwhile investment. We recognize plausible arguments against this approach."

The audit found there were no similar discrepancies between the machine counts in the race for president or U.S. Senate.

Former President Donald Trump said last month that he was closely following the Windham election audit.

After narrowly losing New Hampshire in 2016, Trump blamed it on "rampant voter fraud" and claimed busloads of voters came up from Massachusetts to vote for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Gardner and Sununu have said there was no evidence of voter fraud in that race.

Windham Selectman Bruce Breton, a prominent Trump campaign supporter, said he will be consulting with the New Hampshire Voter Integrity Group & Government Integrity Project as he reviews the report.

The New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights praised the audit effort. They urged Gardner and Formella to recommend regular maintenance be done on the voting machines and that local officials inform voters after the election they had cast a ballot canceled due to an overvote.

klandrigan@unionleader.com

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