Politics

New Hampshire relies on a mix of new and old voting systems

After Curtis Hines marked his paper ballot for Bernie Sanders on Tuesday, he brought it to the ballot box where his father, Patrick, cranked the handle to feed it in.

“Ding!” The vote was counted.

This was state-of-the-art technology – in 1892.

But there’s no need for anything newer in this town of 198 people, the second smallest in New Hampshire.

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Its 127 registered voters are casting ballots in the same 12-by-16-inch wooden box that voters used in the Granite State’s first presidential primary 100 years ago.

The controversy over so-called butterfly ballots in Florida during the disputed 2000 presidential election led to a major overhaul in voting equipment in many states, prompted by an infusion of federal dollars as part of the Help Americans Vote Act, or HAVA.

Many of the new voting systems featured technology that officials thought would help restore confidence in elections at a critical point.

New Hampshire, though, saw little need for wholesale change.

In 80 towns, the only equipment needed to vote is a pencil and paper -- voters simply check a box, and officials tally results by hand.

Forty of those towns use ballot boxes like Windsor’s, which were purchased by the state in 1892 for all towns at a cost of $593.

It cost more than that to print the ballots and ship the boxes across the state.

The rest of the state uses optical scan machines to tally the paper ballots, machines in use since 1992 that have needed little maintenance and are easy to replace if needed.

And if there are questions? Well, this won’t be Iowa, and there aren’t going to be coin flips.

“Open the box, put them all on the table, and go through them,” New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner said.

State-of-the-art is a fleeting notion, and now many of the systems in use across the country are considered woefully inadequate, advocates warn.

As a 2015 study by New York University’s Brennan Center For Justice noted, “No one expects a laptop to last for 10 years.”

The authors found that nearly every state relies on machines that are no longer manufactured, and for which it is difficult to find replacement parts.

In only five states are the voting machines less than a decade old, the study found.

“I wish we could say we were leaps and bounds ahead of the country when it came to voting technology. But the fact of the matter is we are not,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

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Padilla and other elections officials say it's difficult to find money to invest in new equipment, both in state capitals where budgets remain tight, and from Washington, which sees this largely as a state issue since HAVA.

“If we don’t do something in the next few election cycles, we’re going to hit a crisis,” Padilla said.

Hines, 23, previously voted as a student at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, which used the optical scan machine. “It didn’t have the literal bells and whistles this one does,” he said.

Patrick Hines, 58, has been the moderator of elections in Windsor for 25 years. His grandfather held the post for 46 years. 

He proudly opened the box's lid to show its inner workings, the rusted crank turning the wheels that feed the ballot inside, and the bell that sounds after it has dropped inside.

The technology was patented in 1890. Gardner believes it was manufactured by a munitions company.

The elder Hines says he has had no issues with his town’s ballot box. Well, not lately, at least.

“The first thing you’d do is open this up and make sure there wasn’t a mouse nest in there,” he said. “Because that’s happened.”

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