Politics

What New Hampshire Can Tell Us About Restoring Faith in Elections

WINDHAM, N.H. — Brad Winslow is a genial 67-year-old who hugs people he just met. But when it comes to elections, his trust evaporates. A self-described computer geek who has spent much of his career programming machines, Mr. Winslow has long suspected that vote-counting tabulators could be rigged to advantage one politician over another.

“I have zero faith in the voting process,” he told me.

Mr. Winslow has felt this way for decades, long before the Big Lie. But an error in the vote count in the 2020 election in Windham, the town where he lived, deepened his doubt. He joined a citizens group that searches for evidence of fraud and says he purchased an AccuVote vote-counting machine on eBay — the same ancient model that New Hampshire still uses — to see if he could prove his suspicions.

It’s tempting to dismiss him as a conspiracy theorist. Plenty of people do. One voting rights activist in New Hampshire warned me: “Those people can’t be placated.” But the line between a fanatic and a dogged citizen investigator can be difficult to parse. Mr. Winslow has spent countless hours researching the mechanics of elections. Wasn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t democracy depend on citizens who ask questions and demand answers? I decided to listen to him, to see if there was anything that could restore his faith — or shake my own. Eventually, I came to see that rather than dismissing skeptical voters like him, we might better see how they force us to stay vigilant about our elections.

Long before Donald Trump hijacked the rhetoric of election security, experts warned that America’s decentralized elections are at risk from human error, software bugs and hackers.

Most Americans are confident in elections, and they should be. But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent. In other words, both of these statements are true: The 2020 election wasn’t stolen from Donald Trump, and further work needs to be done to make sure each vote cast is tallied as it should be.

And yet it is tough to address election security today, because it has become such a toxic and polarizing subject. Democrats often avoid talking about it, for fear of giving oxygen to the lie that Mr. Trump won in 2020. Republicans often champion policies that make it harder to vote without actually making elections more secure.

Beyond the fears of stolen elections lies a real debate about whether to prioritize access or security. Steps that Democrats want to take to make voting easier — same-day voter registration or mail-in ballots, for instance — are criticized by Republicans as making fraud easier, although there is little evidence of that. The ways Republicans want to tighten security — by cleaning up the voters’ rolls or requiring identification — are criticized by Democrats as underhanded attempts to suppress the vote. Those charges can be exaggerated too.

That’s one reason Secretary of State David Scanlan of New Hampshire established a bipartisan Special Committee on Voter Confidence this year, which has been conducting listening sessions with voters all over the state. Mr. Scanlan hopes that the public conversation will forge a consensus on the right balance between access and security. He even appointed Ken Eyring, a founder of the citizens group that Mr. Winslow is part of, to serve on the eight-member committee. Liberal voting rights activists were outraged. Mr. Eyring had written blog posts about “rampant” election fraud being exposed, which wasn’t true. But the committee is a bet on the idea that engaging voters like him is a better strategy than ignoring or demonizing them.

Although in the recent midterm elections, high-profile election deniers went down in defeat, about 17 percent of American voters were not confident that their midterm ballots would be counted accurately, according to recent polling. The question of how to deal with this small but vocal minority will be with us for years to come.

***

I first encountered Mr. Winslow in June, when he attended a workshop about trustworthy elections put on by a group called Braver Angels. Like the New Hampshire special committee, Braver Angels is trying to find common ground and restore the confidence of people like Mr. Winslow. A Libertarian who doesn’t like Donald Trump or Joe Biden, Mr. Winslow is one of eight conservatives who sat down with eight liberals. The liberals worried about people who were eligible to vote but couldn’t because of unfair barriers. The conservatives worried about fraud — noncitizens voting, people voting twice or computer software switching votes. Nevertheless, the two sides agreed on some things. After hearing about long lines at polling places in Atlanta, conservatives added “voter suppression” to their list of concerns. At the end of the workshop, both sides agreed on things that would bolster confidence in elections. It included the use of paper ballots and frequent postelection audits.

That’s good news. It echoes what experts have been saying for years. A 2007 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and a 2021 report by the Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force on Elections all recommended the same things: paper ballots, counted by machines, and a postelection “risk-limiting” audit that compares some paper ballots to machine tallies to make sure both counts match and are correct.

Paper ballots are key because they can’t be hacked and are easy to audit. Machine tabulators that count paper ballots are highly accurate — more so than hand counting. The machines that keep election security experts up at night are the ones with touch screens, dials or buttons that leave no trace of a voter’s intent.

The country has been making progress. Machines that leave no paper trail for auditing are disappearing, although they are still used in jurisdictions in six states: Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Indiana, New Jersey and Tennessee. But only a tiny number of states conduct risk-limiting audits.

***

“I honestly would like to believe that our elections are free and fair, because the alternative is pretty dark,” Mr. Winslow told me.

Credit…Vanessa Leroy for The New York Times

Nonetheless, he grew very concerned in 2020. That year in Windham, a Democrat lost a local election by 24 votes. In the recount, her loss widened by 99 votes, while her Republican opponents gained about 300 votes. Citizens who already convinced that the election had been rigged rallied outside the town hall, earning praise from Donald Trump, who lauded their “fight to seek out truth.”

In the end, a forensic auditor discovered the reason: Some ballots were folded improperly, leaving creases that a vote-counting machine mistook for votes. Most people were satisfied and moved on. But a small group did not.

One threatened the auditor’s life. But others focused on gathering data. Mr. Winslow studied the vote tallies from each Windham machine, searching for signs of fraud. In our time together, Mr. Winslow came across as fact-based, well intentioned and patriotic. I respected his dive into data. I went down the rabbit hole, reading a book he mentioned and watching a documentary he recommended. I dug into a spreadsheet he compiled that showed that one vote tabulator in Windham had processed a far higher percentage of Democratic ballots than all the others. Was that evidence of fraud? It was a valid question. But when the town clerk explained why — that machine had tallied all the mail-in ballots, which were far more likely to be Democratic — I felt satisfied. Mr. Winslow did not. He had heard otherwise. He wanted to look at the code that had programmed the machines. That was impossible. It belonged to a private company.

Maybe there’s nothing that could satisfy Mr. Winslow. Maybe when hunting for fraud is your hobby and your passion, you don’t want the hunt to ever end. We may never agree on what happened in 2020. But I hold out hope that some sensible changes, like risk-limiting audits, could give voters like him more faith in future elections.

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