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