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Patriot's Day: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

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In the evening of Patriot's Day, 2006, we held what may well have been an historic meeting in the New Hampshire Legislative Office Building. Secretary of State William Gardner hosted a meeting for town moderators from 24 towns facing the choice of having the State replace their obsolete voting machines, or taking the money to pay for hand counting instead.

We - ordinary citizens - were invited to speak to the moderators about choosing hand counting instead of taking these new machines.

It might have been historic, but almost none of the invited moderators came. I don't know why they didn't come. Maybe because it happened to be a heavenly, balmy, early spring evening. Maybe they thought they had nothing to learn from us. Maybe they didn't receive the notification about the meeting from their town clerks. Or maybe the machine salesman, with much more time and resources to make his sales calls than we will ever have, had already cornered the market.

But you never know, really, why things turn out the way they do.

We had invited a moderator from a hand count town to speak about how he manages to count over 2400 ballots using a double-count system that gives an immediate check and balance on the integrity of the count on election night, using 20+ counters in about 4.5 hours.

Those moderators who didn't come to the meeting missed out on learning from what he had to say. But those of us who did come learned a lot. And in the end, this moderator told us that he too had been tempted to look into buying a machine for his town. But because of our meeting he said he's washed clean of that notion now.

It is truly a lot of work counting those ballots, and this moderator, like all of them, has to work with all kinds of people to get it done. And, people are people. So it's not always easy.

But maybe it's not supposed to be easy. Maybe we need to work a little bit every couple of years to preserve our freedoms and to get a fair representative government. Anyway, this moderator seemed to think this is the case.

So that's one town saved. One little piece of freedom preserved in the New Hampshire hills.

Only one other moderator came to the meeting. He was from one of the towns facing the choice of accepting a shiny new machine or taking the money for hand counting. He's going with the machine, because his town ballots are so complex he couldn't see how they could do hand counting even if they wanted. But he explained how he makes sure to do some parallel hand counting in every election anyway. Just as a check against the machine. He's figured out that at the very least you need to have a random audit against the machine in order to trust the election results.

And, as always, Secretary Gardner mesmerized us with stories drawn from the well of his 30 plus years in office as New Hampshire's Secretary of State.

Secretary Gardner explained that in New Hampshire each city and town decides for itself whether or not to use voting machines. The State, he said, has never advocated for the use of machines or against it. But it has intervened as necessary to ensure the purity of our elections.

He told the history that many years ago led him to believe that you can't run true elections without voter marked paper ballots. This was the story of what I believe was the one and only paperless recount that he conducted. It was one of the first, if not the first, recounts he oversaw upon taking office. The recount was conducted on some kind of voting machine that had the numbers like tumblers adding up the votes cast, and displaying those numbers in the back of the machine. The recount, he told us, consisted of a bunch of people staring at the numbers displayed by the machine.

The mental picture he drew for us had us laughing out loud at this image.

And in fact, at the time, it was so ridiculous to him, that he got rid of those machines and saw to it that New Hampshire passed laws so that no machine can be used in the state unless it can read paper ballots marked by the voters.

Then Secretary Gardner explained how we do all of our recounts by hand. How we count the ballots and examine them when necessary for voter intent. And how the paper ballots, the counting, the examination for voter intent, all of it, is done out in the open, in public view. He said that the thing about our hand recounts is that when they are done, people have seen everything. They've seen the ballots; they've seen them be counted. They have a comfort level in that, and they believe in the outcome.

He then said something so profound that the implication of what he said still resounds within me.

The thing with machines, he said, is that people want to trust them. But when the machine makes a mistake, people are unforgiving. They don't know if it was a mistake, or if it was intentional. And they never trust that machine again. They are unforgiving and they lose faith.

But when a person makes a mistake, people forgive that person. They expect humans to make mistakes, and they continue to trust each other even after they make mistakes.

And this is the crux of it.

Once we stop trusting in our elections, we lose our freedom. Once we stop believing in the legitimacy of the outcome, it is no longer legitimate.

In many New Hampshire towns the community comes together on election day. In our hand count towns community members either volunteer or accept very low pay for the honor and privilege of counting our votes. It is a very civil affair. Neighbor sits by neighbor to count and recount until all votes are properly tallied. Candidates and other townspeople gather around to observe the counting, and moderators circulate to answer questions and make sure everything is done right.

Here is the oath that our neighbors swear before they begin to count our ballots:

I, (state your complete name) do solemnly swear {affirm}, that I will bear faith and true allegiance to the United States of America and the state of New Hampshire, and will support the constitution thereof. So help me God {This I do under the pains and penalties of perjury}.

I,(state your complete name) do solemnly and sincerely swear and affirm {affirm} that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all duties incumbent on me as (state office elected/appointed to) according to the best of my abilities, agreeably to the rules and regulations of this constitution and law of the state of New Hampshire. So help me God{This I do under the pains and penalties of perjury}.

One of the things that I did to prepare for the meeting was to copy the hand counting procedures from the New Hampshire Election Procedure Manual. I put these procedures, which consisted of two different methods, on slides to share with the group.

I was so overwhelmed when I read these procedures out of our election manual. I was struck with the gravity and, well, the sanctity, of the procedures.

And I was moved to see the care with which our election officials had set down their words. The message in the guidance given is unmistakable: the integrity of the outcome is in the integrity of the process, in every single task in the process. I will end by sharing some of this here.

Swear in these non-election officials as election officials (inspectors of election pro tempore)...As election officials the volunteer ballot counters are swearing or affirming that they will perform their duties lawfully...

Open the ballot box(es) in view of the public....

If a ballot is marked for any office or question in a way that does not leave the intention of the voter clear or if after getting basic instructions on how different marks are counted from the moderator there is disagreement over how to count a particular ballot for a particular office a vote should be taken of the election officers present and counting votes. If there are many questioned ballots that need to be voted on, the moderator may choose to hold these ballots aside and vote on several at one time. If this is done, however, it is the best practice that all questionable ballots be voted on before the team totals are tallied up. This ensures that the election officials do not know whether the vote on a particular ballot will affect the outcome of the election. This process reinforces the neutrality and enhances the legitimacy of the counting process....

When the last pile(s) have been counted and turned into the team that is tallying piles the moderator should ensure that these officials have peace and quiet to finish the tallies. The tallying must occur in public, however, when all the election officers and counters gather at the tallying table and watch the final calculations it puts pressure on those making the final calculations and makes errors more likely....

If any discrepancies are found the moderator should investigate and attempt to resolve the discrepancy before declaring the results....

view the slides with cost/benefit of handcounting from the meeting

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