A forensic audit of automated vote counting machines in Windham revealed no evidence of fraud or tampering with those devices, officials said Thursday.
The work of the first-ever audit of a New Hampshire election ended Thursday with the team standing by its initial finding that folds made in paper ballots were the major contributor to a wide discrepancy between results that were reported on election night and a hand recount done nine days later in local House races.
On Tuesday, audit team member Harri Hursti began the process of examining in detail the four AccuVote machines used to process ballots in the town.
“All the machines were matched. The content was exactly the same,” Hursti said.
The state law ordering the audit required that the team’s initial work be completed by Thursday.
State officials moved the boxes of paper ballots Thursday from the Cross Training Center on the New Hampshire National Guard campus in Pembroke to the New Hampshire State Archives Building in Concord.
On Election Day, Republican Julius Soti finished fourth in the race for the four state representative seats by 24 votes over Democrat Kristi St. Laurent. But Soti’s win grew to 420 votes after a Nov. 12 hand recount requested by St. Laurent.
The average of the votes tabulated from the four machines during the audit put Soti ahead of St. Laurent by 377 votes — 4,706 to 4,329.
Hursti said a hand recount during the audit found totals nearly identical to the Nov. 12 recount.
He noted that before the audit, one theory had been that the vote discrepancy was linked to the hand recount.
“Once we started doing this work, (it was clear) that two hand counts do match and we can rule out that the hand count was a problem,” Hursti said.
As for the folded ballots, Hursti said one borrowed machine that was used to prepare ballots to be sent to absentee voters was responsible for most of the folds running through the oval next to St. Laurent’s name. The vote counting machines then interpreted many of those folds as votes for St. Laurent.
That folding machine is normally used to process other documents, but it was pressed into service to prepare mail-in ballots because of the crush of requests to vote absentee.
Statewide, nearly a third of all ballots in 2020 were absentee, thanks to a one-time change in state law that permitted anyone to use COVID-19 as a reason to vote absentee.
The automated vote counting machines also were found to have dust in them, which made them more likely to misread the folds as recorded votes, Hursti said.
Earlier, former President Donald Trump seized on the folded-ballots issue to repeat his claims of widespread election fraud.
“New Hampshire’s election audit has revealed that large-scale voting machines appear to count non-existing votes,” Trump said.
“Why aren’t Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republicans doing anything about what went on in the 2020 Election? How can the Democrats be allowed to get away with this?”
Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley said Gov. Chris Sununu should condemn Trump’s comments.
“When Donald Trump next spews lies about the results of New Hampshire’s election — and he will — Governor Sununu needs to forcefully push back against Trump and defend our state, something he has refused to do so far,” Buckley said.
Sununu has said there was no significant voter fraud in the 2020 election and the Windham discrepancy was small, considering more than 800,000 ballots were cast Nov. 3.
Windham Selectman Bruce Breton, a prominent Trump supporter, said the audit produced more questions than answers
“People are still asking about the folds. How long have we had this problem and why are the machines never cleaned?” Breton said.
An audit of another town’s votes might shed more light, he said.
“I would like to see another town run their ballots and see if they have the same problem as Windham,” Breton said.
Breton was in the minority of selectmen in opposing the selection of Mark Lindeman of nonpartisan ballot integrity group Verified Voting as the town’s audit team member.
Breton criticized the pick because Lindeman signed a letter critiquing a recent ballot audit in Arizona after two earlier audits there turned up no problems.
The state law creating the audit now gives the three-person audit team 45 days to complete a report for Secretary of State Bill Gardner, Attorney General John Formella and the town of Windham.
One question the audit team has yet to determine is the percentage of folded ballots that were improperly recorded by the machines.
“That number we do not know yet,” Hursti said.