More than a year after the ballots of 190 Bedford voters were erroneously left uncounted, Bedford will hold its first public hearing on the “ballot fiasco” during this Wednesday night’s town council meeting. The existence of the ballots was kept secret by Bedford town officials, including Town Clerk Sally Kellar, Town Moderator William Klein, and other town officials.
NHJournal was the first media outlet to report on the ballot mishandling, nearly a year after the 190 absentee ballots went uncounted on Election Day 2020.
The public notice for this Wednesday’s Bedford Town Council meeting includes the line: “Discussion of November 2020 election ballot matter.” No other information is included. The public is welcome to attend and ask questions.
Town officials declined to respond to requests for comment from NHJournal, as they have largely done since the story first broke. However, state Sen. Denise Ricciardi, who also serves on the council, did release a brief statement.
“I am very happy to see this issue is going to be addressed in public. As a public servant and elected official, transparency has always been very important to me,” Ricciardi said. “I’m glad this is on the agenda because answers are needed. I just want the truth — why was this kept from both the public and the town council for a year?”
While there is general agreement on what happened to the ballots during the 2020 general election — a tray of uncounted absentee ballots was mistakenly placed among those already counted — it’s the behavior of town officials after the error was discovered that has angered many Bedford residents. It has also fed suspicions among some Granite Staters who are already concerned about ballot security.
Rather than publicly acknowledging the mistake at the time, Town Manager Kellar and Moderator Klein chose to reach out to the secretary of state’s office, which then contacted the Attorney General’s Office. Town officials, including Deputy Clerk Gloria MacVane, Town Manager Rick Sawyer, and Assistant Moderator Brian Shaughnessy, kept the disenfranchising of Bedford voters a secret even as the secretary of state was conducting a recount of the local state Senate race the following week.
Secretary of State Bill Gardner told NHJournal he was unaware of the ballots during the recount as well.
In a letter mailed to the disenfranchised voters on October 30, Kellar and Klein blamed their secrecy on the Attorney General’s Office.
“The attorney general requested some information from us and we submitted it on November 19, 2020. We were told not to discuss this with anyone, not even the town council, because it was a pending investigation,” they claimed.
The Attorney General’s Office responded by saying that claim was untrue, and that it first learned town officials were blaming the office for the secrecy from NHJournal.
“Our Office learned of your October 28 letter concerning uncounted absentee ballots through [NHJournal’s coverage] on Saturday, October 30,” Anne M. Edwards, the attorney general’s general counsel said in a letter to town officials. “We are concerned, in particular, by three statements in your letter: 1) that the Attorney General’s Office instructed you not to tell anyone, including the Bedford Town Council, about the 190 uncounted absentee ballots; 2) that you made numerous attempts to obtain a resolution from our Office; and 3) that our October 21 closure letter was essentially the first explanation from us as to the necessary remediation plan.
“These statements are inaccurate,” Edwards wrote.
Bedford town officials have insisted to NHJournal the Attorney General’s Office was behind the delay, while that office has communications showing it was pressuring the town to make the information public. Both sides agree the process largely came to a halt in the lead up to the September 7, 2021 special election to fill a state House seat vacancy.
The winner of that special election, Rep. Catherine Rombeau, joined fellow Bedford Democrat Rep. Sue Mullen in a statement calling for a full investigation.
“We are perplexed by the length of time it took to conduct the investigation and conflicting accounts from local officials, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, and the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office,” the Democrats said. “We call for a thorough and transparent explanation of the timeline of events, decisions made throughout this process, and communications between these three groups. It is of utmost importance for Bedford voters to know these facts.”
The Bedford Republican Committee echoed those sentiments.
“The integrity of our elections, and the reliable processing of ballots, is critical to maintaining the allegiance of citizens to our system of government. It is of utmost importance, then, that we respect the efforts of these 190 voters to participate in the election. They and the public deserve a thorough investigation and determination of why their votes were not counted and were kept secret for nearly a year,” the committee said in a statement.
Meanwhile, nobody has answered the question many citizens have asked: Why didn’t some elected official at the state or local level simply make the error public? While the Attorney General’s Office as a policy doesn’t comment regarding ongoing investigations, no law or policy prevented either former Attorney General Gordon MacDonald or current Attorney General John Formella from telling the public about the matter
And even if the Attorney General’s Office did ask town officials to keep the information secret, the elected officials chosen by the voters of Bedford were not legally bound by that request.
“I just feel so angry,” said Shannon McGinley, whose two sons were among the 190 disenfranchised voters. “I understand accidents happen. But it seems that someone is lying and that there was a cover-up. And that really makes me mad.”