Overvoted ballots could slow down state’s election workers and delay results 

By: - November 8, 2022 4:40 am

Voting stations are set up in Belmont for New Hampshire’s primary election in September. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

It was 3 a.m. by the time Derry Town Clerk Tina Guilford finished hand-counting ballots on the night of the state primary vote in September.

Guilford’s long shift in the gymnasium of the Calvary Bible Church was no accident. Many voters had deliberately filled out their ballots in a way that forced a hand count, a phenomenon the town had never seen before. 

Loosely organized social media campaigns by those distrustful of elections and voting machines are encouraging voters around the state to force hand counts. But voting rights advocates say the effort could exacerbate the issue by making the process more cumbersome.

“Large numbers of overvotes will cause a huge slowdown of the count,” said Lisa Danetz, an election attorney at the Brennan Center during a press event. “We also know again from the 2020 election that the longer a count takes, the less people trust the outcome.” 

A ballot is overvoted when a voter selects more candidates than they’re allowed to. Sometimes this happens when a voter makes a mistake, filling in the oval for a candidate and then crossing it out and choosing a different candidate. But voters can also intentionally overvote the ballot by filling in the oval next to their chosen candidate and also selecting the write-in option.

The maneuver is possible because of a new law that went into effect this year. It requires reprogramming voting machines so they will return overvoted ballots to the voter to be hand-counted by election officials. It was meant to address an issue where inadvertently overvoted ballots weren’t counted, such as what happened in Windham in 2020, but now it’s being used for another purpose entirely. 

When a voter selects a write-in candidate, the voting machine scans the ballot, counting all of the other races. It spits the ballot into a separate bin so the write-in race can be hand-counted. But when a ballot is overvoted, all of the races have to be hand-counted. It allows for even a small number of voters to delay the counting of votes on election night. 

“We are going to be demanding a hand-count write-in of our ballots to put pressure on the secretary of state and all of these town offices to relook at integrity in our election law,” said Terese Grinnell, on a video posted to We the People NH’s Facebook page, encouraging the page’s 1,800 followers to do the same. An associated group has around 4,300 members. 

We the People NH describes itself as “a vast spectrum of Liberty minded freedom fighters.” 

“We are not an ‘organization’ or any formal entity, we are simply the people,” reads the website, which lists Grinnell’s phone number as its contact information. The group’s write-in campaign is called The Resolve.

“First and foremost, Sept. 13, when we did the write-in campaign, we caused a lot of disruption,” Grinnell told viewers in her Facebook video. Continuing that disruption, Grinnell said, will help the group pressure the secretary of state to implement their preferred policies in the name of election integrity: live camera footage of hand counts, additional scanners to tally votes, striking unqualified voters from voter rolls, and requiring ID in order to vote. 

Though all evidence shows New Hampshire’s elections are safe and fair, Grinnell claims that forcing a hand count will make it harder for election officials “to do the wrong thing and be nefarious.” 

“It’s not about us being, you know, disruptive,” she said in the video. “It’s not about us being a pain in the ass. It’s not about us wanting the poll workers to have to work all night. It’s about us saying, ‘Hey, until you do a few things to bring integrity back, we’re not going to be complacent about this. We’re going to be loud and we’re going to demand that you listen to what we have to say.’”

The claim that integrity is lacking in New Hampshire’s voting system is unfounded. Both Secretary of State Dave Scanlan and Gov. Chris Sununu have repeatedly said that the state’s elections, including machine counting, are secure and fair. 

“You’ve heard me say 100 times, we’ve got a great system,” Sununu said at a press event ahead of the election. “Our optical scanners are incredibly reliable.”

But conspiracy theories around voting machines have persisted.

“There is a population of voters that just don’t trust the machines to count the ballots accurately,” Scanlan said. But, he said, if an accurate count is their goal, forcing a hand count could be counterproductive, since it can introduce human error. 

A 2012 study of recounts in New Hampshire found that hand counts are less accurate than machine counts. Other studies have found that hand-counting introduces significant errors, said Danetz, the election lawyer.

Merrimack Town Moderator Lynn Christensen has been helping run the town’s elections since the late 1980s. In that time, only one election has been reversed by a recount, she said, and it was one that was initially incorrectly tabulated by a hand count. 

“There’s all kinds of conspiracy theories out there,” Christensen said. But “the machines are accurate. All of the recounts the secretary of state has done have proved that they work.”

Guilford blames social media for drumming up mistrust, where stories about places that use different machines than New Hampshire have circulated. 

“People, for whatever reason, you know, suddenly don’t trust a machine that we’ve had in Derry for 20 years,” Guilford said. 

Guilford is preparing for this distrust and more overvoting on Tuesday. She’s quadrupled the number of counters she had at the primary, hiring an additional 30 poll workers. 

Other towns are preparing, too.

In Merrimack, Dianne Trippett said she’s doubled the counting teams lined up for election night. While she normally has eight to 10 counters, this year she will have as many as 20. 

Londonderry town moderator Jonathan Kipp has done the same. The town hand-counted around 140 ballots in the primary, which kept workers at the polling place until around 11:30 p.m. 

Drew Mason, the town moderator in Hollis, said, “Yes, hand-counting ballots takes a lot of time, especially when you’ve got 15 races on it.” It took his team about an extra hour to hand count around 40 ballots. Of those, he estimates that only three were overvoted. It’s difficult to predict, he said, but he’s anticipating more overvoting in the general election. He too has doubled the number of counting teams. 

Hiring additional workers will cost towns. Many of Derry’s new hires will be paid $15 an hour, Guilford said. They had to go through about an hour to an hour and a half of training ahead of the election. The money to pay for that wasn’t in the town’s budget and will have to come from a supplemental appropriation. But she won’t know the total cost until after the election, based on how long the counting takes.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.