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Voter intent: Granite State bedrock for election integrity

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I was honored this week to be a counter at the State recounts following our
primary. New Hampshire has long had laws requiring real paper ballots (I think
NH was the first state to enact such laws), we have long had a tradition of
manual recounts, and this tradition was recently enacted into law as well.

Today's recount was for an optical scan district, meaning that we were comparing
the machine count results against the hand recount results. Hand counts
generally produce different results from machines. That's because when you use
machines to count votes, not every vote is counted. Pure and simple.

Deputy Attorney General Bud Fitch, who is an expert in the New Hampshire
election system, has been known to remark that the Diebold optical scanners used
in New Hampshire will count ballots perfectly when the ballots are perfectly
marked. Meaning, that the voters need to fill in the little ovals exactly enough
to be read by the scanner, or their votes are not counted.

This is where the notion of voter intent comes in. When a citizen comes to the
polls to make this personal, political expression called voting, he or she is
asked to indicate this expression on a ballot. People, being people, will not
always mark their ballots with perfectly filled ovals. Sometimes, they'll circle
the name of their candidate. Or they might cross off every other candidate's
name to show just how much they really like their candidate. Or, they might
simply be sloppy and unintentionally color outside instead of inside the lines.

You never know what some of these crazy voters will do.

While these "imperfectly" marked ballots still contain the voter's political
expression, their intent, machines, not being human, can not discern the voter's
intent on the ballot. The machine can only read a perfectly filled oval. That's
what it is programmed to do. But in New Hampshire, voter intent is a legal
standard, which is why the hand count of the hand marked paper ballot is the
count and the vote of record in our state.

Because of all this, Secretary of State Gardner tells us that in a manual
recount you should always expect to see vote counts rise for every race. Because
human beings don't always perfectly fill in the little ovals to the machine's
specifications, the machine doesn't always read their votes. In the manual
count, the human does.

And indeed, as we counted the ballots today, each time we encountered a ballot
marked lightly, or with checkmarks instead of perfectly filled ovals, or even
with the imperfect markings of the shaky hand of an elderly person, we knew,
even before the counts were finally tallied, that the vote counts went up for
one candidate or another.

At a recount, the candidates or their representatives are invited to observe the
manual count so they can challenge any count as they see fit.

The candidate watching my recount today had originally lost her race by roughly
ten votes.

During the count, we came across one ballot with a tiny dot in the center of the
oval by this candidate's name, while other ovals above and below were filled

My counting partner read the counts aloud and stated that he was not going to
count that dot as a vote for her. I asked if she wanted to challenge the count.
She said, "Why would I? You can clearly see the intent was for all those other
candidates. The voter probably just made a mark as he was counting down the
ballot. That's not a vote for me!"

Our seasoned candidate today was fluent in the language of voter intent, which
flowed as naturally from her during the recount as the sap from our maples every

When we concluded the recount, and when all the counts were tallied, she went
from a loser to a winner. She ended up winning by ONE VOTE in the manual count.

Across the nation, electronic voting advocates and apologists continue to
propose one solution after another to deal with the mess caused by the
proliferation of electronic voting machines. But with these solutions they only
further complicate things unnecessarily.

They could instead look to the Granite State; they'd learn a lot about the value
of voter intent and the honor and integrity that it brings to the way we count
our votes.

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