By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The state Ballot Law Commission upheld victory for Republican Julius Soti who beat Democrat Kristi St. Laurent by 24 votes for state representative, but also asked the Attorney General’s Office to look into the case that left even veteran election officials scratching their heads on Monday.
While there were no allegations of fraud or wrongdoing in the race in Windham, when the dust settled on Monday’s meeting, there were lingering questions as to why in the recount, St. Laurent lost 99 votes and the four Republicans in the eight-way race gained 300 votes each and even the three other losing Democrats gained some votes, which is more common in recounts.
Neither Secretary of State Bill Gardner nor Ballot Law Commission Chairman Brad Cook could explain what happened, but said it would be in the purview of the Attorney General’s Office to investigate and agreed that it wouldn’t change the outcome of the race between St. Laurent and Soti.
Both said the important thing was that the winner was the one who received the most votes, that there was no way St. Laurent, the top Democratic vote getter, could win.
But the numbers perplexed them both.
“I have never seen a recount that involved that many ballots in that small a jurisdiction,” Cook said. He suspects something was wrong with a machine counter as a likely culprit.
“They’ll get a forensic person or the machine company to see if it was working” properly, Cook said.
St. Laurent’s attorney Paul Twomey said: “In the end I declare victory although they ruled against my client. They asked the Attorney General to investigate the machines” and the discrepancy in votes. And Twomey said, that’s what he and St. Laurent wanted in the first place.
Although very slim, Twomey thinks depending on what the investigation shows, there could be an avenue to victory for St. Laurent in the Republican stronghold. The four Republicans were the top vote getters and St. Laurent was the top vote getter of the four Democrats.
In her complaint letter, St. Laurent told the five-member commission there appeared to be only two rational explanations – “either the machines were programmed to reflect unwarranted adjustments in multiples of 100 to the totals of all Republican candidates and the top vote receiver among the Democrats or a significant number of ballots were double counted during the voting process.” She added that double counting wouldn’t explain why her votes dropped by 99 in the recount.
“If the machines were incorrectly programmed it is imperative to know whether this was a localized program or a systemic threat to the integrity of the election results as reported,” St. Laurent wrote.
The four machines in Windham, as all voting machines in New Hampshire, are the AccuVote 0s system, the only ones approved by the Ballot Law Commission.
If the machines didn’t malfunction, that leads to the conclusion that the hand count was marred by duplicate counting, St. Laurent said.
Gardner said this was an unusual case because St. Laurent didn’t ask the commission to review any challenged ballots. The Ballot Law Commission doesn’t have the authority to order a second recount.
But that’s why it matters that there are paper ballots to be hand-counted in recounts, he said. And Soti won the recount.
It’s over as far as this election is concerned, Gardner said. He wasn’t sure how the Attorney General’s Office would handle the investigation, but was pleased they will take a look.
“They can look into the memory card on the machine to see whether there was any malfunction with the machines,” Gardner said.
He said there have been 16 different recounts around the state with more than 150,000 ballots and nothing similar happened anywhere.
In most recounts, candidates go up in number of votes, Gardner said.
“The biggest discrepancy here was for a person to lose 99 votes,” Gardner said. “I don’t like those situations. I don’t like that it’s not an easy answer.”
He said the commissioners made the point that the role of the Ballot Law Commission is “to make sure that we got it right, that the right people, the ones who got the most votes, win the election.”
What happened in this case is an unknown, he said.
“I don’t like unknowns. You want to be able to answer all the questions,” Gardner said.