Nov. 20 – CONCORD – An already historic election recount season is expected to intensify this week as Republicans and Democrats engage in the closest battle ever for control of the state House of Representatives.
After a record halftime turnout and changes in state election laws, recounts have already changed three results, one of which went to court.
Deputy Speaker of the House Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, stopped at the State Archives Building in Concord on Friday for the fifth straight day of recounts to greet Secretary of State David Scanlan.
“You’re talking about a baptism under fire,” Smith told Scanlan, who is directing his first general election reports since replacing Bill Gardner, who served as secretary of state for 45 years.
New Hampshire has a long history of recounts and numerous close elections, due in part to the biennial election of all state and county officials, including 424 members of parliament. But 30 recounts, 28 of them for seats in the 400-seat House of Representatives, is a modern record.
Over the course of three days, reports shook politics and drew national attention by changing the results of three races:
– A 23-vote win for Republican Larry Gagne became a one-vote win for Democrat Maxine Mosley in Manchester Ward 6;
—A 4-vote win for Carroll Republican John Greer turned into a 2-vote win for Rep. Eamon Kelley, D-Berlin; and
– Republican David Walker’s 1-vote victory in Rochester Ward 4 over eight-year Democratic Rep. Chuck Grassie resolved in a tie.
The drama left the House with 200 Republicans elected, 199 Democrats and the tie up in the air.
“We don’t usually see that. Occasionally a recount can turn a seat over a couple of ballots, but not two days in a row and then a tie,” said Democratic Senate Chair Donna Soucy of Manchester, who has more than a decade of electoral experience in the state.
“These are interesting times.”
The “overvote” factor
To make matters worse, this was the first election under a new law that treats ballots differently when voters choose too many candidates for a single office.
A private vendor reprogrammed all of the AccuVote counting machines to throw these “overvote” ballots into a separate bin.
For the first time, city and community clerks had to record the number of majority votes cast. Scanlan said paperwork for some of those races, including the controversial Manchester Ward 6 race, was not fully completed.
When the recounts took place, volunteers who had worked on recounts for decades had to process them separately via ballots.
Tensions are high
In the crowded recounting room, the stress was palpable as counters placed one ballot after another on optical scanners as seated observers from both parties watched them roll by.
Many of these desks have had extensive experience of being watched, including Jim Splaine, D-Portsmouth, a former State Senator and Representative; retired House Information Officer Jim Rivers; and former nine-year state representative Lynn Ober, R-Hudson.
The partisan observer’s job is to ensure that their side receives every ballot to which they are entitled, counted either by hand or by the electronic voting machine.
The observers had plenty of help. Two or three volunteers, piled low behind them, watched and sometimes offered their own suggestions.
Party representatives could question the counting of a single ballot.
In front of dozens of spectators, Scanlan decided on each voted ballot.
Both sides could challenge Scanlan’s decisions before the Electoral Rights Commission, which will meet on November 28.
“It looks like we’re going to be very busy,” said BLC Chairman Brad Cook, who stopped by to watch the proceedings himself on Wednesday.
Losing and winning contestants generally praised their treatment from the recount team.
“I have to give it to them. This is a truly transparent and fair process,” said Rep. Cody Belanger, R-Epping, who lost his seat by seven votes.
Before losing in the recount, Republican Gagne gave the count high marks.
“I checked it out. It’s long, it’s boring, they’re looking at things very carefully – very little room for error… So I have full confidence whatever it would have turned out,” Gagne said ahead of the reversal.
Gagne later filed his appeal against the finding to the Ballot Law Commission.
Other errors found
Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, stopped working as a counter when Scanlan made a decision on a contested ballot that Edwards didn’t like.
“I just couldn’t stay and watch a decision that I didn’t agree with,” Edwards later said.
Other hiccups were uncovered during this process.
State election officials found that a city official had erroneously reported that US Senator Maggie Hassan had received 1,106 votes in the tiny town of Columbia, where just 309 had cast a vote on Nov. 8.
The correct number was 106 votes.
During the recount of a home race in Brentwood, Scanlan employees found 27 mail-in ballot envelopes that were not opened or counted by city officials.
Scanlan is asking the Ballot Law Commission to order the count of those ballots because the losing candidate who requested the recount was defeated by 15 votes.
Another recount dropped a 35-vote win for Bridgewater Democrat Carolyn Fleuh-Lobban to just four votes over Bristol Republican John Sellers.
Scanlan said local officials admitted “some miscalculations” played a role.
Scanlan will face a Democratic opponent, former Brookline Senator Melanie Levesque, as secretary of state when the Legislature decides on the post for the next two years.
Drove to court
Democratic lawyers have asked a judge to stop Scanlan from restarting Monday’s Manchester Ward 6 recount. Scanlan said there was “uncertainty” whether all the ballots had been counted correctly.
“The NH GOP wishes to ignore its own electoral laws and conduct another recount in this race in hopes of overturning an election that was conducted fairly and counted accurately by the Secretary of State’s own staff,” said Colin Booth, the Democratic Party’s communications director.
In the lawsuit, Democratic Party legal counsel William Christie said Scanlan was seeking an illegal second recount that would “undermine the confidence” candidates and voters should have that the election can be trusted.
During an interview before the lawsuit was filed, Scanlan said his duty is to ensure each recount is completed in full.
In a draft report, Scanlan’s special committee on voter confidence conceded that, like all human endeavors, elections are subject to error. Better training and recruitment of volunteers for local elections, and possibly higher compensation, could help reduce them.
“All voters, election officials, volunteers, and the legislature that passes electoral legislation must watch carefully for errors or violations,” the committee’s draft report reads.
“They must adapt the system as new problems arise or new methods become available if they are consistent with our well-established voting tradition.”