Election Q&A: David Levine explains what went wrong with the Windham, New Hampshire 2020 vote count

Windham, New Hampshire, a town with 14,000 residents, found itself in the public eye after the 2020 election. Eight candidates ran for four open seats in the state legislature, and Republicans swept them. Kristi St. Laurent, a Democrat, requested a hand recount. The recount revealed that she had lost by even more votes than initially tallied, and that all four GOP candidates had won more votes than originally tabulated. Donald Trump decried the corrected total as proof of “massive election fraud” against the GOP, which set off a media and social media circus.

What happened in Windham? I asked David Levine, who has reviewed the recent Windham election audit. He is a fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He previously was the Ada County Idaho Elections Director and managed its federal, state, county, and local district elections.

You have read the 121-page audit. Was there any evidence of fraudyes or no?

No. As the auditors noted, there is “no basis to believe that the miscounts found in Windham indicate a pattern of partisan bias or a failed election.”

What factors caused the machine miscount on election night?

Fold lines on the ballots appear to have been the primary cause of the machine miscount on election night. To send out thousands of mail ballots to voters more quickly, Windham election officials borrowed a folding machine to fold the mail ballots before sending them to voters. Unfortunately, the folding machine was not properly calibrated and often folded the ballots in the wrong place. The ballots were designed to be folded with creases between candidates, but in Windham, the crease overlapped with one of the candidates for a state representative contest, which the voting machines often interpreted as an additional vote for that contest. This altered the votes of approximately 400 ballots that were fed through the voting machines. Fortunately, New Hampshire has paper ballots, so it was able to go back to the original records and see the machines had miscounted.

Such a mistake underscores the close attention to detail election administrators must exercise when preparing ballots and testing the components of their election system before an election, even a machine used to help fold ballots. I still have dreams about doing similar tasks when I previously administered elections.

As the United States Election Assistance Commission has noted, it’s important to understand the significance of the placement of ovals, folds, timing marks and precinct/ballot style identifiers to ensure ballots are properly prepared and printed. Otherwise, it could adversely impact the scanner’s ability to properly read the ballot, as was the case in Windham.

Who did this audit and how were they chosen?

The bipartisan law authorizing the New Hampshire audit required the audit to be overseen by three outside auditors — one chosen by the state, one chosen by the town of Windham, and one chosen by the two auditors selected by the state and the town of Windham.

The three auditors selected to oversee the audit via this process were Harri Hursti, Philip Stark, and Mark Lindeman. Hursti, a widely known election security expert, was chosen by the state. The town of Windham selected Mark Lindeman, a noted elections audit expert, who works for Verified Voting. And Lindeman and Hursti jointly chose the third auditor — University of California Berkley statistics professor Philip Stark, who invented the risk-limiting audit, which is widely considered the gold standard for validating election results.

These three auditors oversaw bipartisan groups of election officials from other New Hampshire cities and towns who volunteered to assist the audit team and did most of the physical work of the audit, including the handling, retabulating and hand counting of the cast ballots.

The law mandating the audit also gave the New Hampshire Secretary of State and Attorney General significant roles. These offices oversaw transporting ballots, arranged security, and ensured that the process could be live-streamed. Representatives from both offices also helped the auditors answer questions about matters such as ballot printing and recount procedures.

How was the Windham audit received in New Hampshire? I ask because Arizona is conducting an audit of Maricopa County going on, and it has fanned a political firestorm.

Because the Windham audit was well conducted, it has been pretty widely accepted by New Hampshire lawmakers and election experts, and its findings were largely reaffirmed in subsequent reports by the state’s Ballot Law Commission as well as its Secretary of State and Attorney General. Unfortunately, the audit continues to be a point of debate for many New Hampshire voters — particularly those who believe, without evidence, that there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election generally.

Thank you, David.

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