Both New Hampshire officials and outside experts agree the state is unlikely to experience the problems that plagued Iowa’s Monday contest for a variety of reasons: The New Hampshire primaries are run by towns and cities, not the political parties. Voters mark paper ballots, which are counted by hand or by machines that are not connected to the internet. Local election officials announce results to the public and the media on election night, and their handwritten tallies are delivered to the secretary of state’s office by state police the next morning.
As Secretary of State Bill Gardner is fond of saying, “You can’t hack a pencil.” “We’ve kept it simple. I’ve always preached that the more moving parts that you have in the election process, the more room there is for something to not function right," he said earlier this week.
At a news conference Thursday, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and others described the state's election preparedness and security for the Feb. 11 primary. New Hampshire has more than 6,000 local election workers who are trained by the secretary of state’s office. On Election Day, inspectors from the attorney general’s office will visit each of the state’s 300-plus polling places and will have a team of attorneys responding to calls to a hotline for reporting problems.
“The 2020 presidential primary will take place against the backdrop of New Hampshire’s long history of conducting elections that are fair, with complete integrity, well run and with a very high level of voter participation,” he said.
Iowa kicked off the presidential nominating contests, but the results remained muddied days later by reporting delays. Officials initially attributed the delays to technical problems with an app that precinct chairs were supposed to use to record votes, then to backlogs as those volunteers tried to call in their totals.
Eddie Perez, global director of technology development for the OSET Institute, an election technology research organization, said he expects things will be different in New Hampshire because "so many of the process failures that happened in Iowa and the uncertainty that resulted were really due to the uniqueness of the mobile app they were using, which of course is not going to be operative in New Hampshire.”
If something big goes wrong, the Statehouse will be opened that night to the media and campaigns so officials can keep the public informed, said Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan. But he and others said that was highly unlikely. Not only has New Hampshire had the first presidential primary for 100 years, it also elects its governor and 424-member Legislature every two years, meaning local election officials get lots of practice.
“What you’re hearing today about the incredible details that go into this process, the checks and the balances ... this is typically how New Hampshire runs its elections year after year after year,” said Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said. “We do it right, and frankly we do it better than anybody else does.”
David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, agreed that New Hampshire “almost certainly” will not have problems like Iowa, in large part because the primary is run by state and municipal election officials. But he does see room for improvement. Most other states that use paper ballots perform audits to check results before certifying them, he said, but New Hampshire does not.
“It’s very good to have a check on the machine, not just for malware, but for the much greater likelihood that machines sometimes malfunction,” he said. Michele Courser, the town clerk in Warner, said she doesn’t anticipate any problems. The town has about 2,100 registered voters, and poll workers count ballots by hand.
“There’s always pressure, but we know how we’re supposed to be running it, so as long as we’re running it that way, we’re not going to have issues,” she said. In Tamworth, former longtime town moderator George Cleveland said he did sometimes worry about elderly eyesight coupled with poor lighting as poll workers counted ballots. And there was that one year when the ballot box went on a bit of an adventure.
Cleveland, the grandson of President Grover Cleveland, said election officials had a long-standing tradition of going out to eat after the polls closed and before counting ballots. One year, he put the box in the police chief’s car, figuring that was as safe a place as any. It was a great idea, until the chief got called away to respond to a car accident, and drove off with the ballots.
“After that, we started having dinner brought in,” he said.
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