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‘Election Day’-Ja Vu: Windham Ballot Problems Discovered

Here we go again. 

On the eve of the primary election came reports out of Windham that ballots are being folded with the crease going through the voting oval, apparently repeating the same errors that led to an extensive audit of the town’s ballot system after the 2020 election.

According to reports, absentee ballots sent to Windham voters ahead of Tuesday’s primary have been folded twice, with the creases going through the ovals. The same improper folds on absentee ballots in 2020 resulted in anomalous results and new state oversight of the vote.

Windham Town Clerk Nicole Merrill could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Town Hall staff said she was away at Windham High School setting up for the election.

Both Anna Fay with the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office, and Michael Garrity with the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office said state election monitors will be on hand Tuesday to make sure the election goes off smoothly.

“There will be an election monitor at the Windham polling place tomorrow. If there are any problems with improper folds or other issues, they will act accordingly,” Fay said.

Windham is one of three communities that will have state monitors in place to oversee the primary election due to multiple errors found in the 2020 voting process.

Windham, Bedford and Ward 6 in Laconia will all have election monitors in place In Windham, the audit found the vote total discrepancy was due to the improper folds. The folds in the paper ballots made it difficult for optical scan vote counters, AccuVote machines, to record the votes properly.

A state review also faulted local officials for compounding the errors by cutting corners, according to a January letter from New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella and Secretary of State William Gardner to Windham town officials.

“(S)imply out, 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,” the letter states.

The state ended up paying at least $123,000 for the outside experts to audit Windham’s voting totals.

In Bedford, a months-long controversy over 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.

In Laconia, a joint investigation conducted by the Attorney General’s Office and the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office found that 179 ballots went uncounted after the 2020 general election. The errors in this case were blamed on Ward 6 moderator Tony Felch.

“The ballots in the side compartment were not counted because Laconia Ward 6 Moderator Felch did not understand the basic functions of the ballot collection box,” according to the Attorney General’s release on the matter.

Felch was forced to resign from his volunteer position as part of the resolution of the incident.

Laconia Joins List of NH Towns With Ballot Snafus in 2021

More stray ballots from the 2020 general election have been found during a 2021 election, this time in Laconia. And the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office is investigating.

Ballots were reportedly found in a voting machine in September, more than 10 months after the 2020 election. Deputy General Counsel Myles Matteson with Attorney General’s Office said the ballots weren’t reported to his office until this month. Matteson said Wednesday he is unsure why the city took almost three months to report them.

“We don’t have further information to share on that at this point but our investigation is ongoing,” Matteson said.

Laconia officials are not talking. City Clerk Cheryl Hebert, City Manager Scott Myers, and Mayor Andrew Hosmer all declined to respond to requests for comment from New Hampshire Journal on Wednesday.

According to the Concord Monitor, most municipalities in New Hampshire use AccuVote optical scanning systems to tabulate paper ballots. When a voter fills out a ballot, it is scanned and dropped into a secure box connected to the scanner. 

Hebert told the Monitor the city uses an option in the ballot-counting system which allows some ballots to be diverted to a special partitioned section of the box. But she would not say if the ballots discovered in September were found in the special partition. Matteson said whatever happened, it was not the machine’s fault.

“There is no indication that the ballots were left in the ballot collection box because of machine error,” he said.

Representatives for AccuVote are unavailable for comment this week due to the Christmas holiday.

Matteson said the total number of found ballots is not known at this time, but he said they would not change the outcome of any race. While the problem may not be a mechanical error, some Granite Staters in the so-called voter integrity movement want to do away with all voting machines.

The New Hampshire Voter Integrity group is an online community that includes conspiracy theorists who believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election. An effort to get rid of the voting machines in Greenland recently failed overwhelmingly at the ballot box, though there are more plans in other towns to get rid of the machines.

The AccuVote optical scanners used in New Hampshire were generally manufactured in the 1990s, and do not have the ability to go onto the internet, or even be accessed by Bluetooth devices. That has not stopped conspiracy theories from speculating the vote totals were manipulated because of the machines.

The Laconia ballot error is similar to ballot mishaps in Bedford, Merrimack, and Nottingham when stray ballots were found months later.

Bedford tried and failed to keep word of its ballot mishandling secret. Last year, 190 absentee ballots in the November 2020 general election were mistakenly placed among counted ballots and weren’t found until five days later. Town election officials, at the suggestion of Assistant Town Brian Shaughnessy, kept their existence secret from town councilors and the general public — including the 190 disenfranchised voters.

Last month, Town Manager Rick Sawyer sent members of the Town Council an email informing them that another stash of counted 2020 ballots had been found in a ballot box in September during the special election. It took the town weeks to tell anyone about these ballots. Senior Assistant Attorney General Anne Edwards confirmed she’s investigating that latest ballot snafu. Edwards had all of Bedford’s ballot boxes seized as part of the investigation.

According to emails obtained by New Hampshire Journal, Town Council Chairman Dan Gilbert was upset that the news of the ballots had gone public. He told councilors not to answer questions about the ballots.

“I have asked for a meeting with our town attorney, town clerk, and town moderator to decide on a course of action in this matter. Please refrain from asking questions or making any comments until a path forward is decided on. I am very disturbed that someone already spoke to the NH Journal about this matter,” Gilbert wrote.