Recounts are the last act in NH’s political theater
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Every two years, one of my favorite rituals of New Hampshire’s peculiar form of democracy in the recount. With 500 races on the ballot statewide, most of them in relatively small districts, there are dozens of races that come down to a very small number of votes. And every election, a few seats change hands once we get a closer look at the ballots.
In fact, recounts in two State Representative districts have already resulted in new winners.
I volunteered to observe the District 9 State Senate Recount between Republican Andy Sanborn and Democrat Lee Nyquist. Watching a recount reminds me that voters aren’t partisan machines. I wonder what motivated someone to vote for Gary Johnson, Maggie Hassan, and Bill O’Brien. Or another to skip every race between President and State Representative.
Sanborn won on Election Night by about 250 votes, and after the recount by a little more 200. Even that narrow margin is very unlikely to change during a recount, but certainly close enough to ask for one.
New Hampshire has been saved the ignominy of a Florida 2000 recount debacle because of our choice decades ago to adopt optical scan ballots. These machines avoid the mechanical fallibility of punch cards and the digital uncertainty of electronic voting machine by using the cutting-edge technology I remember from taking standardized tests in the 1980’s.
At every polling place in New Hampshire, ballots are either counted by hand, or by a machine that tracks the darkened ovals you fill in on your ballot. Either way, your paper ballot can be reviewed by human eyes during any recount.
Secretary of State Bill Gardner runs the recount, and his opinion on disputed ballots is what counts. Recounts in multi-member House are a nightmare, but a one-on-one race is straightforward, if tedious work.
Gardner assigns a two-person team to go through each box of ballots. Observers for each candidate can watch the process, but can’t touch anything. The counting team sorts the ballots into piles for each candidate. If an observer objects to say a Sanborn vote that they think should be counted as a Nyquist vote or an “overvote” that doesn’t count for either candidate, it gets set aside.
When all the ballots have been sorted, and blank ballots taken out, each member of the counting team sorts them into stacks of 25. These stacks are double-checked by the other member of the counting team. And hopefully, the counters and the observers agree on how many votes are in each pile.
Gardner then reviews the disputed ballots with lawyers for each candidate. Most objections are dropped and the ballots are added to tally. If a campaign disagrees with Gardner’s decision, the vote still gets added, but the ballot is set aside for potential appeal to the Ballot Law Commission.
If the winning margin after the recount is greater than the number of ballots still under dispute, the race is called. If not, the losing candidate can take up the controversial ballots with the BLC, which has final say over New Hampshire elections.
Sanborn’s recount took all day, but not much changed. The Cheshire County Sheriff’s race could easily change hands this week. Democrat Eli Rivera is just 27 votes ahead of Republican Earl Nelson, out of nearly 38,000 votes cast.
More than 4,000 people left that race blank. As Rush lyricist Neil Peart so eloquently wrote, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
A New Hampshire recount resulted in the closest election in U.S. Senate history. In the 1974 race to succeed Norris Cotton, Republican Louis Wyman beat Democrat John Durkin by just 355 votes. After the recount, Durkin led by just 10.
Wyman appealed to the Ballot Law Commission. David Tirrell-Wysocki, who heads up the Nackey Loeb School of Communications, tells the possibly apocryphal story of one ballot where the voter wrote in “The Crook”. Both campaigns argued that obviously meant their guy.
The BLC’s final decision put Wyman back ahead, with a two-vote landslide, 110,996-110,994.
Senator-Elect Wyman headed to Washington, but the Democrats holding a 60-seat majority refused to seat him. The Senate Rules Committee spent six weeks pouring over 3,500 disputed ballots, and the Democrats spent six-months trying to seat Durkin over Republican objections.
By late July, Wyman convinced Durkin to let voters settle the matter. The Senate declared the seat vacant. Thomson appointed Cotton to keep his old seat warm. In the biggest Do-Over in American history, Durkin trounced Wyman, 54-43%, with nearly 40,000 more votes cast than in the 1974 midterm.
Recounts may be murder on the candidates, but they make the best political theater.
Grant Bosse is Vice-President for Media for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank based in Concord, NH.
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