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Top Election Officials Blast Report Ranking NH Last in Voting Ease

A new report from a progressive political organization ranks New Hampshire dead last in ease of voting. But the Granite State’s top election officials dismiss the findings as bunk.

“That’s the type of report that causes people to lose confidence in elections,” said New Hampshire Secretary of State Dave Scanlan. “The report is way off base in my opinion.”

The report, Cost of Voting in American States, ranks New Hampshire 50th in the nation, finding the Granite State makes it more difficult and expensive to vote than any other. That report has since been picked up by national media outlets like The New York Times, and locally by WMUR.

Scanlan said the report, compiled by a researcher with a political activist group, along with a Midwest political science professor and a data analyst from China, ignored the facts on the ground when it comes to how easy it is for New Hampshire residents to vote. 

“When they issue a report like this, it gives a false picture of where New Hampshire is at,” Scanlan said.

For example, the report faults New Hampshire for not being part of the Motor Voter law where people are registered to vote when they get a driver’s license. The state is also criticized for not offering permanent mail-in voting, or adopting “no excuse” absentee voting, for not allowing incarcerated felons to vote, and not allowing drop-off ballot boxes, as some other states have allowed.

Scanlan said the report’s authors fail to consider key facts, like same-day voter registration, or the security of New Hampshire’s elections. And then there was the ultimate measurement: High voter turnout.

During the last five presidential elections, New Hampshire has been in the top three states for voter turnout, Scanlan said. “It doesn’t matter what California does, or what Washington does in their state, it matters what New Hampshire does,” Scanlan said.

“It’s easy to vote here, and we have struck a good balance between ease of voting and making sure elections are secure,” Scanlan said.

Michael Garrity, communications director for the New Hampshire Department of Justice, said the report’s findings are not based in reality.

“New Hampshire has many convenient options for voters to register to vote and to vote. New Hampshire law allows voters to register to vote in person at town and city clerks’ offices, by mail, or on election day,” Garrity said.

New Hampshire offers election day registration for voters and provides voters with the ability to bring documents showing their qualifications to vote, or allows them to sign affidavits for every qualification if they do not have any documents, he said.

“And, unlike many other states, our election day registered voters cast full ballots that are counted on election day – they are not provisional ballots that can be rejected in the weeks after an election,” Garrity said.

New Hampshire election officials strive to make sure people who are allowed to vote can vote, Scanlan said. That means making sure real registered voters are the ones taking the ballots, and that those voters are not impeded. Many of New Hampshire’s voting laws and regulations have developed over centuries, he said.

It seems to be working for New Hampshire, as a recent UNH poll found 98 percent of New Hampshire voters find it easy to cast their ballots.

“In this regard, that’s the only question that matters,” Scanlan said.

National GOP Group Backing NH State House Women

Women in New Hampshire’s GOP are getting a boost from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national organization throwing its support behind women candidates in State House races up and down the ballot. 

“The RSLC is encouraged to see so many women candidates running in state legislative races who will effectively represent their communities in Concord and advance commonsense policies to counteract Joe Biden’s failed agenda,” said RSLC National Press Secretary Stephanie Rivera.

The RSLC has so far spent $500,000 to help send women and others to Concord this election cycle. According to Rivera, 27 percent of the Republicans running for the House this year are women, as are 26 percent of the GOP Senate candidates. Betting on Republican women is a safe wager, she said.

“In the State House, 51 percent of Republican women who ran in 2020 won their campaigns. In the Senate, Republican women had a 55 percent success rate,” she said.

According to Rivera, the RSLC’s Right Leaders Network is leading the effort to grow the Republican Party through the RSLC’s Right Women Right Now and Future Majority Project initiatives. The committee is focused on recruiting, training, supporting, and electing thousands of diverse state Republicans across the country.

New Hampshire is a key state for both Republicans and Democrats, as the national parties are looking to gain a foothold in state legislature races. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) is targeting legislatures in New Hampshire, Michigan, and Minnesota, pumping money and resources in an effort to turn all three state legislatures blue.

“We know what we’re up against, but we are making a play to undercut GOP power in the Michigan House and Senate, the Minnesota Senate, and the New Hampshire House and Senate,” DLCC President Jessica Post said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

It makes sense for the national GOP to invest in New Hampshire races, according to Rivera, as the GOP leadership in Concord has proven successful in handling the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic, and voters are looking to continue that success.

“New Hampshire has the best economy in the New England region and the second lowest unemployment rate in the country because the Republican-controlled Legislature has made the economy a top priority by passing a historic state budget that includes $171 million in tax relief for working families and small businesses, cuts taxes for retirees, and reduces property taxes by $100 million to provide relief. This diverse slate of candidates will help Republicans hold both chambers in the Granite State to continue this record of success,” Rivera said.

Democrats have been leaning heavily on abortion as an issue to motivate their base. They’re spending big money on ads attacking GOP Gov. Chris Sununu for signing a law that bans abortion after 24 weeks, or six months, of pregnancy. Sununu’s challenger, Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, is using abortion as a major campaign plank, arguing against any restrictions on abortion.

“I would want to put in place Roe v. Wade in the state of New Hampshire,” Sherman said. “New Hampshire does not want the state in between a doctor and a patient, especially on such an intensely private issue.”

The issue may play with well Democratic donors, but not even New Hampshire Democrats support unrestricted abortion through all nine months of pregnancy. A St. Anslem College poll taken in August found about a quarter of Granite State Democrats support some limits on abortion, as do about 70 percent of the general population.

Rivera said New Hampshire voters, especially women voters, see the GOP as having the answer to issues like out-of-control inflation, soaring energy costs, and the price of food.

“Just like all voters in New Hampshire, women are pleased with the job being done by the Republican trifecta in Concord to push back against Joe Biden’s inflation with tax cuts that put more money in the pockets of working families,” Rivera said.

Skeptical About NH’s Election Integrity? NHSOS Scanlan Has A Solution.

During the First Congressional District debate on the Jack Heath radio show Tuesday, Republican Karoline Leavitt flatly said she did not trust the results of the 2020 elections, nationally or here in New Hampshire.

“I continue to be the only candidate in this race to say the 2020 election was absolutely stolen and there is no way Joe Biden legitimately won 81 million votes. That is a preposterous claim.”

And, Leavitt later added, the reason the state has Republican control at the state level but an entirely Democratic federal delegation “is because of our poor election integrity laws at the state level. We allow non-citizens of our state to vote in our elections.”

Most Granite Staters don’t agree with Leavitt’s claims regarding the 2020 election — 84 percent told the UNH Survey Center poll in July they are confident in the election process — but New Hampshire’s Secretary of State David Scanlan says there is a simple way for people skeptical about New Hampshire’s voting system to lay their concerns to rest.

“I would suggest people who are expressing doubts volunteer as poll workers,” Scanlan said.

Scanlan and his elections team are in the midst of a massive training effort to get 1,200 to 1,500 New Hampshire elections officials ready for the coming voting season. The primary vote is set for Sept. 13, and the midterms follow in November.

Asked by NH Journal about political candidates currently expressing doubt about the outcome of the 2020 election, Scanlan said the whole voting process is transparent and easy for anyone to observe.

“Any voter or citizen of New Hampshire who has questions about the election process should spend some time observing that process. It’s transparent from start to finish,” Scanlan said. “It’s all public activity done in the open with many checks and balances done at the polling place.”

There has never been any credible evidence of voter fraud in New Hampshire, but that has not stopped political candidates like Leavitt, Tim Baxter, and Don Bolduc from questioning the results of the 2020 election.

Baxter’s argument rests on the conspiracy theories laid out in the movie “2,000 Mules.” In fact, none of the First District GOP candidates were willing to say that former President Donald Trump lost the election during the NHJournal debate on August 4.

Bolduc, the frontrunner in the GOP race to take on Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, even signed an open letter this year questioning the 2020 election results.

“The FBI and Supreme Court must act swiftly when election irregularities are surfaced and not ignore them as was done in 2020,” the letter reads in part.

The 2020 election did see some glitches in the Granite State. For example, the months-long controversy in Bedford surrounding the 190 ballots that were never counted resulted in the secretary of state deciding the town will have a state-appointed official to oversee the September primary.

“As a result of the concerns and shortcomings described in this and our prior correspondences, the Attorney General makes a finding that the November 2020 General Election returns from Bedford had significant deficiencies,” Myles Matteson of the state Attorney General’s Election Law Unit wrote to Bedford town officials. “The Secretary of State, in consultation with the Attorney General, will be appointing an election monitor for the next election, the September 13, 2022, primary election.”

Scanlan wants to avoid any similar problems in the coming elections. The training for election officials will help the local moderators, ballot clerks, and selectmen understand election laws and get up to speed on any changes to the law from the last election.

The 2020 election saw polling stations swamped with absentee ballots due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Scanlan said there is unlikely to be a repeat of that issue this year. The training sessions are not mandatory, Scanlan said, but strongly encouraged.

SHAUGHNESSY: There Was No Cover-Up In Bedford Ballot Case

Brian Shaughnessy, a candidate for Bedford Town Moderator in the March 8 municipal elections, played a key role in the November 2020 elections in which two sets of ballots were mishandled and town officials kept the mistake a secret for nearly a year.

NHJournal’s reporting on the story can be found here, here and here.

Shaughnessy has since been nominated by Gov. Chris Sununu to serve as a Circuit Court judge. One of the five members of the Executive Council has already urged Sununu to withdraw the nomination.

Shaughnessy posted the following on Facebook Friday:

 

My name is Brian Shaughnessy and I am running unopposed for Bedford Town Moderator.

There is a write-in candidate, Hanan Wiseman, who has a website that contains false and misleading information about me. Mr. Wiseman’s website states: “We CANNOT allow someone like Brian Shaughnessy who is compromised and came under investigation from the Attorney General’s office for mishandling the 2020 election, then lied about it to the voters here in Bedford to oversee elections!”

He also states that I have said I do not work for the voters. In his defense, he is getting this inaccurate information from several stories and social media discussions that allege my involvement in a cover-up, and allegedly lying to voters in a letter I did not author or send. Almost all of this speculation and innuendo are inaccurate at best, and purposefully false at worst.

I am not the Town Moderator, I am not under investigation, I did not send any letter to the voters. I did not handle any of the ballots that are the subject of recent articles, nor was I in any way involved with the mistakes that were made, training the dozens of new election workers required to process the 7,700 absentee ballots received by Bedford for the 2020 COVID general election, or communicating any information to the state, town, or voters. I am an unpaid election volunteer performing my civic duty.

An honest mistake was made. After the November 3, 2020 election, the Assistant Town Clerk could not reconcile the number of ballots issued with the number of votes cast. This is a standard report/ reconciliation that is required to be filed with the Secretary of State’s office to assure the integrity of the election and guard against any ballot box stuffing or other attempts to “rig” an election.

As required by law, the NH Attorney General’s office conducted an investigation. Its report dated October 21, 2021, found no wrongdoing and determined that an election worker inadvertently moved a container of 190 uncounted absentee ballots which had been pre-opened per COVID related protocols to the table where the empty absentee ballot envelopes, which are required by law to be preserved for 3 years, were being stored for eventual transfer back to Town Hall for storage. After finding the unopened uncast absentee ballots, the Town Clerk immediately contacted the Secretary of State’s office and reported the discovery.

I was not the subject of the investigation or at any time “under investigation.” I was a witness in that investigation.

There was no lie. A letter sent by Moderator Klein and Town Clerk Gellar to the 190 absentee voters indicated that they were advised to not discuss this matter with anyone, not even the Town Council, because it was the subject of a pending investigation. In a detailed letter I sent to the Town Council prior to a November 17, 2021, Council meeting (both of which are public record), apologizing to the Council that it was left in the dark for 11 months while the Attorney General’s office was investigating the matter, I acknowledged that the Klein/Gellar letter could have been more articulately phrased, but that letter did not state that Bedford election officials were “ordered” by the Attorney General’s office to not discuss the matter with anyone while the investigation was pending.

The advice to not discuss matters relating to the pending investigation came from me, as a lawyer, advising someone who is the subject [of] a pending investigation that could support criminal charges (see RSA 661). Any notification to the Town Council would be subject to RSA 91-A (the right to know law), and any public statements could become fodder for social media which could impact the pending investigation. Standard legal advice.

Despite an accusation made by a Town Councilor during the November 17, 2021, Town Council meeting that my legal advice was “haphazard’: it is the same legal advice Moderator Klein and Clerk Gellar subsequently received from the Town Attorney.

I did not state election officials do not work for the voters. At the Town Council meeting, I responded to a particular question to me that incorrectly stated that the Town Moderator, an elected official, had a duty to report to the Town Council. The Town Councilor who made the inaccurate statement demanded that all of the Town officials who knew about the uncast absentee ballots and did not report it to the Town Council should resign. I responded that both the Town Moderator and the Town Clerk are also elected officers, and as Election Officials, they report to the Secretary of State’s office on election matters, which they did in this case, and not the Town Council (see NH Constitution, Part 2, Article 32 and RSA 659:60).

I further pointed out that I could not resign as demanded because I was not an elected official and only serve at each election at the discretion of the Moderator that appoints me. There was no office for me to resign from since I am simply a volunteer who does not get paid and is not elected. Bill Klein was very pointed in his statements that election officials are accountable to the voters.

From those statements, it is being reported, and repeated, that I have stated that we do not work for the voters and have no obligation to be transparent to the voters. Simply not true.

There was no effort to hide the ball, or intention to cover this matter up. I would never be a party to that type of behavior.

The Secretary of State’s office was notified within 30 minutes of the discovery which was the appropriate chain of command. During a meeting after the discovery was made, I recommended, and everyone agreed, that we would notify the 190 voters and apologize that they were disenfranchised through an honest mistake. That would only be done, however, once we received permission from the Attorney General’s office. We had no idea that the report would not be finalized until 11 months later, but Moderator Klein and the Town Manager knew from the beginning that at the conclusion of the Attorney General’s investigation, a report would be sent to the Town at which point it becomes a public document.

I firmly believe every Bedford official acted in good faith, fully cooperated with the investigation, and did what he/she believed was in the best interests of election integrity as a whole.

I agreed to run for Town Moderator again after Bill Klein indicated he was stepping down, and no one else signed up for the job. Today, more than ever, we need experienced people running our elections.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story reported Shaughnessy is being considered for a Superior Court judgeship. It is the Circuit Court. NHJournal regrets the error.

State to Monitor Windham Elections After Town Caught ‘Cutting Corners,’ Ignoring Law

New Hampshire’s Attorney General and Secretary of State have released a scathing letter calling out the town of Windham for its inept, dishonest, and potentially illegal mishandling of ballots during the 2020 general election. The behavior of town election officials was so egregious, the state is taking the unusual step of appointing a monitor to oversee the coming September primary election.

The town received the news Friday in a letter from New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella and Secretary of State William Gardner to Windham town officials.

“(S)imply put, town election officials cut corners. Some of those shortcuts created errors — such as using an uncalibrated folding machine — which were unintentional and perhaps unforeseeable, but ultimately resulted in ballots not being accurately counted,” Formella and Gardner wrote.

Windham became a flashpoint in the national debate over President Donald Trump’s unfounded allegations of widespread election fraud after a recount in a state representative’s race came up with wildly different results from the original count. The Election Day results were recounted at the request of Democratic candidate Kristi St. Laurent, who finished behind the top four Republican candidates. In the recount, each of the four winning Republicans picked up about 300 votes and St. Laurent lost 99 votes, dropping her losing margin from just 24 votes to more than 400 votes.

After the state paid at least $123,000 to bring in outside experts to audit Windham’s total, the problem was traced back to folds in absentee ballots that confused the optical scan on the AccuVote machines.

However, the joint letter states there were serious issues in the way town election officials conducted their behavior before and after the election that had nothing to do with folded ballots.

For example, the town failed to follow the legal requirements for calibrating the machines before the ballot-counting began. Towns are required to use 50 practice ballots to be fed through each machine at least four times. In Windham, officials put six practice ballots through each machine just once.

“The use of six test ballots, each of which was counted only one time by a device, not only violates state law, but also fails to provide the evidence that the device counts accurately as called for by law,” the letter states. Town officials “ignored legal obligations and are of continuing concern as they are indicative of an election that was not executed to the standard of the law or expectations of voters,” Formella and Gardner added.

Windham officials also failed to put securely sealed labels on several boxes of ballots after the vote. And while town officials told the Secretary of State’s Office the proper boxes and labels did not arrive in town before the election, the state’s investigation found a check of the tracking numbers for the shipment indicates all of the boxes and labels arrived in town on time.

Windham’s Town Clerk Nicole Merrill said Monday she was still trying to digest the letter from the state, but that she was also excited to work collaboratively on the upcoming September election.

“We are excited about the monitor and welcome them with open arms,” Merrill said. 

However, Senior Assistant Attorney General Anne Edwards said Monday it is highly unusual for the state to appoint an election monitor in New Hampshire.

“It is not very common for the state to put an election monitor in place,” Edwards said in an email. “In the 25 plus years that I have been involved, the only other time I am aware of us putting an election monitor in place was in Derry for the 2016 General Election.”

That election was marred by several legal problems, according to Edwards, resulting from actions by the Derry Town Moderator Mary Till including “(she) did not follow procedures correctly in that she: failed to identify a central polling place; did not correctly handle the counting of the ballots given that she was a candidate on the ballot; and did not correctly arrange for the delivery of ballots from the separate polling places to the Municipal Center.  She also conducted her own hand recount of the ballot counting device, which is not permitted by New Hampshire law or approved by the Secretary of State or the Ballot Law Commission.”

Windham isn’t the only municipality in the state with issues from the 2020 election. The town of Bedford is embroiled in controversy over town officials’ ongoing attempts to keep information from the public over their mishandling of ballots as well. At least 190 absentee ballots were left uncounted, a fact town officials kept secret from both the town council and the voters of Bedford. 

Windham Town Manager Dave Sullivan said voters should feel confident in the process the town has in place, despite the fact the state will be monitoring the next election due to errors.

“We feel very confident in the process that we have,” Sullivan said.

Merrill is looking forward to addressing the issues in town. Given the difficulties in the 2020 elections statewide, she hopes all New Hampshire voters will benefit from what is learned in Windham. Merrill said voters in her town can trust the process.

“I took an oath and I take it very seriously. We keep everyone’s ballots safe and secure,” Merrill said.

The story was updated to correct a reporting error. The Derry official who led to a state monitor in 2016 was Town Moderator Mary Till, and not the town clerk

Gardner Blasts Hassan Over Fed Election Takeover: ‘This Will Hurt Turnout’

New Hampshire’s top election official says Sen. Maggie Hassan has never spoken to him about the federal voting rights law she’s backing, or its impact on Granite State elections. And, Secretary of State Bill Gardner says, that impact won’t be good.

“This will hurt turnout,” he told NHJournal Tuesday.

Last week, Hassan made national news when she took to the Senate floor to announce she was abandoning her support for the filibuster in order to pass the “Freedom to Vote” Act. The bill would impose federal mandates on all 50 states regarding early voting, voter registration rules, voter ID, and taxpayer-funded campaign ads. Federal power over local election laws is needed, Hassan said, because of “partisans who are attacking our democracy.”

Unless the federal government intervenes, Election Day in New Hampshire would be very different, Hassan warned.

“We’ll wake up, cast our vote, drop our kids at school, go to work. We’ll tune back in at the end of the day to see the election results – only to learn that the vote tally is being ignored, that our votes don’t matter much. We’ll learn that our legislatures are going to throw out the results and pick their own winner. We’ll see an election day that is a charade – just like in countries where democracy doesn’t exist.”

Hassan followed up her floor speech with a WMUR interview: “If we can’t protect the wonderful elections that we have in New Hampshire, then we are all faced with a slide toward authoritarianism,” Hassan said.

Gardner rejected Hassan’s conspiracy theories and argued the real danger to the Granite State election process is federal intervention like the law Hassan is backing.

“Look back at history, going back to FECA [Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971], the NVRA [1993 National Voter Registration Act], or the Help America Vote Act. Every time the federal government has stepped in to take over more of the election process, they tell us it will increase voter turnout,” Gardner said. “But the results are very different.”

Gardner says New Hampshire has largely avoided most of the requirements of those federal laws, finding workarounds like same-day registration. Other states like California and Colorado have embraced the federal policies, including widespread mail-in voting.

“Look at the results. We have a higher turnout rate,” Gardner said.

In 2020, New Hampshire had the sixth-highest turnout rate of its voting-eligible population (78.3 percent), well above Colorado (71.3 percent) and California (69.4 percent). The Granite State has consistently had among the highest turnout rates in the country for decades.

“They keep saying these new rules will lead to more voting, but that’s not the record if you look at the facts,” Gardner said.

“If you cheapen the value of voting, and you have people losing faith in the process, you’ll lose people on Election Day. That’s what’s been happening in other states.”

Asked if he explained that to Hassan when she called him to discuss the legislation and her position, Gardner told NHJournal his fellow Democrat has never spoken to him about New Hampshire’s election laws or procedures.

“Not even when she was governor, I don’t think,” Gardner said.

Hassan has declined repeated requests for comment. Asked to name the people in New Hampshire she believes are threatening the state with “authoritarianism” or illegally overturned elections, her office declined to respond.

She does have the support of Granite State Democrats, however. They agree with her view that Granite State elections are under local threat.

“Proposals to undermine our free and fair elections and make it harder to vote are here in the New Hampshire legislature and across the country because of unfounded right-wing conspiracy theories intended to sow division and discord,” Deputy House Democratic Leader and Ranking Democrat on the House Election Law Committee, state Rep. David Cote (D-Nashua) said in a statement. “As a caucus, we thank Senator Maggie Hassan for her commitment to defending Granite Staters’ right to cast their ballot, regardless of for whom they cast it.”

Not surprisingly, Republicans took a different view of Hassan’s actions.

“We may never see such a brazen, self-serving flip-flop ever again,” said NRSC spokesman T.W. Arrighi. “Maggie Hassan has gone back on her word and surrendered the fate of New Hampshire’s First-In-The-Nation primary to her buddy Chuck Schumer. What’s most concerning is it appears she surrendered her state’s federal election control to win liberal praise from the radical base she hopes will fund her campaign.”

Gardner, who has repeatedly warned expanding federal control of elections will endanger the state’s First In The Nation primary, is unwilling to attack his fellow Democrat so directly. But, he says, the fallacy of her approach is obvious if you just do some basic math.

“New Hampshire has two members of Congress. States like California, New York, and Texas have far more. If we let Congress make our local election rules, which states are going to decide what the rules are?” Gardner asked.

“California’s not going to get New Hampshire’s election system. We’re going to get stuck with theirs.”

Defiant Bedford Town Officials: ‘We Did The Right Thing’ Keeping Ballot Fiasco Secret

The four Bedford town officials responsible for keeping 190 mishandled ballots a secret for nearly a year were defiant in the face of a “no confidence” vote Wednesday night, insisting they did the right thing by leaving town councilors and the public in the dark.

Town Manager Rick Sawyer, Town Clerk Sally Kellar, Town Moderator William Klein, and Assistant Town Moderator Brian Shaughnessy all narrowly survived a 4-3 vote on the “no-confidence” resolution.

The vote was the conclusion of a contentious hearing during which Shaughnessy acknowledged he — and not the Secretary of State’s or Attorney General’s Office — was the source of the legal strategy not to inform the town council of the uncounted ballots from the 2020 general election. The year-long delay and bureaucratic secrecy have been seized upon by supporters of former President Donald  Trump’s unfounded “stolen election” conspiracy as proof that the 2020 election results are suspect.

Wednesday night’s meeting was the first time town officials or town councilors had discussed the ballot fiasco in public. Only Klein and Shaughnessy were on hand to answer questions. Town Clerk Sally Kellar was attending an out-of-town event and chose not to participate remotely.

Town Councilor Kelleigh Murphy did participate via telephone, but the distance didn’t prevent her from making her anger felt inside Town Hall.

“You had a duty to tell the council. It is absolutely deplorable that this information was kept from us. I don’t think anyone who knew about it at the time and kept it secret should be involved in town government,” Murphy said. “I feel very strongly about that.”

Everyone agreed the mishandling of 190 absentee ballots was a simple mistake. A tray of uncounted ballots was erroneously placed among ballots that had been counted. The anger, from elected officials and the public, was in response to the decision of both state and local officials to keep the mistake a secret until just weeks ago.

The already-troubling story took a bizarre turn when Kellar and Klein mailed a letter last month claiming the Attorney General’s Office ordered them to hide the mistake from the public.

The Attorney General’s Office responded with a letter of its own contradicting the claim and putting the burden back on Bedford’s town officials.

“Bedford election officials raised concerns with this notification and asked (us) not to notify voters,” the Attorney General’s general counsel Anne Edwards told NHJournal. “I would never say that about an elected official lied,” Edwards said of the letter from Keller and Klein. “We felt it was important to issue a clarification because we were concerned about the accuracy of some of the statements.”

But Wednesday night, Shaugnessy admitted he was the source of the strategy of silence, not state officials.

“Our decision that was made at the beginning [November 2020] was that until the Attorney General’s Office investigates and speaks to us, we shouldn’t be talking to anyone. The Attorney General’s investigation is a criminal investigation. Sally and Bill could be subject to criminal penalties, including a felony. I didn’t think it was a good idea for them to talk to anybody.”

But, Murphy responded, Shaughnessy isn’t the town attorney. “Did you consult with the town attorney or just give out haphazard legal advice?”

“I gave out haphazard legal advice,” Shaughnessy replied. “I did not check with the town attorney.”

Shaughnessy also didn’t explain what possible felony the town Clerk or Moderator could have committed by telling voters about the uncounted ballots, a claim several New Hampshire attorneys found laughable.

Councilor Denise Ricciardi, who also serves as a state Senator and whose election was subject to a recount that would have involved the mishandled ballots, asked Shaughnessy where the Secretary of State or Attorney General got the authority to order the town’s elected officials to keep the ballot screw-up a secret. “Is there a law or a statute?”

After a long pause, Shaughnessy acknowledged: “I am not aware of any law or statute that allows them to order people to keep things quiet.”

In the end, both Klein and Shaunessy were defiant, stating flatly that they don’t answer to the council and are free to deny them information about elections if they choose.

“We believe we did the right thing,” Klein said. “We report to the Secretary of State. We do not report to the Town Council.”

After that, it became clear there would be a no-confidence vote called by Murphy.

“The town council is the town governing body. Rick Sawyer had a duty to let the council know what was going on,” Murphy said. “I understand why people lose faith in government. This never should have happened. It is completely unacceptable.”

Both Murphy and councilor  Bill Duschatko expressed their disappointment with the defiant stance of the town officials, who continued to insist they did nothing wrong.

“There is no remorse there,”  Bill Duschatko said. “It’s just another day of doing business.”

Bill Duschatko, Murphy, and Ricciardi cast the three votes in favor of the “no confidence” resolution. Councilors Bill Carter, Lori Radke, Sue Thomas and Chairman David Gilbert voted against it.

Ray Chadwick of the Bedford Republican Committee was on hand. The committee has called for a full investigation and, he told NHJournal, Wednesday night’s hearing fell far short of that. “We still need a full and thorough accounting of what happened. We did not get one tonight,” Chadwick said.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article misidentified one of the members of the town council who voted against the “no confidence” resolution as Melissa Stephens. It was Bill Carter. We regret the error.

Bedford Ballot ‘Fiasco’ On Wednesday’s Town Council Agenda

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.”