As New Hampshire voting machines age, state weighs alternatives
For some New Hampshire municipalities, the approval of new voting machines is highly anticipated. (Kate Brindley | New Hampshire Bulletin)
New Hampshire cities and towns received a clear warning in 2020: The Accuvote machines used by many communities to count ballots at elections are growing old.
In a July 2020 letter to cities and towns, LHS Associates, the Salem-based vendor that sells and services the machines, said it would “continue to provide services and parts for the Accuvote as long as we possibly can.” But doing so was proving increasingly difficult, the letter stated.
The problem is simple: Accuvote tabulators aren’t manufactured anymore. The last new machine was sold in 2008. And in the years that have followed, LHS has sought to keep New Hampshire’s tabulators running by stripping parts from other states’ abandoned machines.
“… Since the Accuvote is no longer being manufactured, it is becoming increasingly difficult to acquire parts for the (Accuvote Operating System),” the letter stated.
Three years later, little has changed. Many cities and towns are still using Accuvote machines for elections, and LHS is continuing to service them. But as another presidential election looms, state and local officials are preparing for what many say is a necessary upgrade.
On Wednesday, town and city clerks and moderators will gather in Concord for a demonstration of three possible candidates to replace the Accuvote tabulators. Representatives of the companies will be on hand to answer questions and demonstrate how their machines handle ballots.
And soon, the state’s Ballot Law Commission will make a weighty decision over which of the new machines to approve for towns and cities moving forward. The Secretary of State’s Office will survey town officials on their preferences at Wednesday’s demonstration, and the results will help inform the commission’s decision.
For some municipalities, the approval of new machines is highly anticipated.
In Manchester, most of the city’s machines work without a hitch, but in most elections, one or two need to be serviced. The city has already set aside $277,000 in its latest budget to pay to replace 27 tabulators across the city’s 12 wards.
The current machines will still be used at least through the city elections this fall, said Matthew Normand, the Manchester city clerk. But he urged the Ballot Law Commission to move quickly to approve a machine.
“I’m hoping that there’s some movement after August 2 on a statewide solution for a new device,” he said.
Other towns are happy with their Accuvote machines, many of which have been in operation for decades. LHS first began selling the machines in 1992.
“We love them because they’re just tabulators,” said Bobbie Hitchcock, the Hanover town clerk. “They just count the ballots in the races. And they’ve been accurate.”
But Hitchcock recognizes that an upgrade is necessary, particularly with LHS’s warnings about the difficulty in finding parts. Hanover has begun budgeting for new replacement machines, and Hitchcock plans to show up Wednesday to see the new machines in person.
Neither Normand nor Hitchcock anticipate that the Ballot Law Commission will make its decision in time for towns to purchase and install the machines by the presidential primary election in February. But there may be time to do so by the September 2024 state primary and November general election.
“We have machines that are working,” Hitchcock said. “So both scenarios are good. If we got them that would be great. If we didn’t get them we’re still good.”
The commission has indicated that it will choose “no more than two” tabulators to approve, raising the possibility that towns and cities could buy different machines in the future. That could require the Secretary of State’s Office to print different ballots for different towns in order to match the correct format of each town’s machine. The office would be prepared to do that, Secretary of State Dave Scanlan said in an interview.
Each of the three machine candidates – from Dominion Voting Systems, Election Systems & Software, and VotingWorks – has been tested in New Hampshire in recent statewide and municipal elections. In those cases, interested towns used the machines and town and state officials watched the results. The Secretary of State’s Office has published audits on the performance of each machine.
Like the current Accuvote machines, the new machines would be disconnected from the Internet. But they would offer new technologies such as an optical scanner that would record digital images of each ballot and store them on a memory card. Those images would be used as backups; the paper ballot would still be the official receipt for each voter, Scanlan said.
Scanlan said the testing shows that any of the three machines would provide an accurate count. But he said town officials might decide they prefer the logistics of one machine over another.
Hitchcock said she’ll be examining the machines closely on Wednesday, looking for whether the machines are secure, and whether they are easy to set up, test, and use. “The number one priority is, does it count the ballots accurately?” she said.
For his part, Normand prefers the Dominion tabulator, known as “Image Cast,” which he said would provide the most continuity with the Accuvote machines.
The push to find a new voting machine comes after lawmakers scrapped an effort to allow the state to use federal Help America Vote Act federal funds to help towns and cities buy new machines. Manchester Republican Rep. Ross Berry argued state assistance was necessary to ensure a smooth and timely transition away from the Accuvote machines. Republican Sen. James Gray countered that residents in a town should decide whether they want voting machines and should vote to pay for them with town funds.
In Manchester at least, Normand argued the machines are essential to provide an accurate and timely result on election night.
“I think the city of Manchester and probably many other municipalities would struggle to put enough people at the polling locations to get an efficient and effective hand count,” he said. “You know, you’re inviting a human into that process. And humans make mistakes.”
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