September 17, 2010

Primaries take on a whole new 'crazy' with added paperwork and regulations

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Blame paperwork, or the new online reporting requirement – blame the universe and its effect on the calendar, giving us a later Labor Day and earlier first Tuesday in November than usual.
But so far, no one is blaming Secretary of State Bill Gardner for primary squeeze that had local election officials working against the clock to beat filing deadlines.
“I'm not angry at Secretary Gardner,” said Dorothy Marsden, Pelham's Town Clerk. “This is my job, so I did what I had to do.”
What she had to do was admittedly “horrible,” said Marsden, projecting whatever contempt she might have felt onto the additional paperwork which kept her at town hall until after 3 a.m. Wednesday.
“Primaries are usually crazy anyway, but we've never had to have all our forms up to Concord the same night,” Marsden said.
It was a similar story in Derry, where police stopped by the town municipal center to see why the lights were still on at 3 a.m.
“They wanted to know if we were still here,” said Town Clerk Denise Neale, who was indeed still working on final vote tallies into the wee hours.
She explained that it all stems from the federal MOVE Act – Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act – which mandates there be 45 days between a primary and general election. Because Labor Day fell later than usual in September, and the general election falls on its earliest possible deadline – November 2 – states had the option to change the date of their primary elections. New Hampshire was one of nine states that opted not to make the change, which created a counting crunch for municipalities.
The trickle down effect is that every other election-related deadline is condensed – a historic first, said Derry Town Moderator Margi Ives, who assisted with the counting marathon.
“It's trickle-down angst, the kind that goes from your head to your toes,” said Ives who, like Neale, was running on little sleep as they picked up where they left off early Wednesday morning.
Even after the results were sealed and delivered to police headquarters sometime after 3 a.m., Neale got a call that there was a state receipt form missing.
“It was a new form – one of the many changes we've been dealing with in this election,” said Neale, whose sense of urgency Wednesday was due to the fact that the clock was still ticking for the next deadline. By 5 p.m. yesterday Neale had to record and fax all the write-in ballot information to the Secretary of State's office.
Neale was well aware that Derry was not the only town scrambling to meet the state's various filing deadlines.
“When we delivered our results to the police station at 3 a.m. they were still waiting on Pelham and Londonderry,” Neale said.
Londonderry Town Clerk Meg Seymour said police signed off on delivery of voting results at 3:45 a.m., but her work of manually logging information into the state's new online computer system continued into the dawn.
My biggest complaint is that the system was so slow – I had to wait up to a minute between entries. When you have 256 clerks around the state bogging a computer system down, it's going to be slow,” Seymour said.
Bedford Town Clerk Lori Radke said she, too, was hampered by the slow computer system. Police on duty waiting for the results told her it was last call for paperwork at 3:50 a.m.
“I had more to do, and wasn't able to certify the election before handing over the paperwork, but I had no choice,” Radke said.
She finally left her office at 5:50 a.m., but was back to work at 8 a.m. – just in case the Attorney General's office called to say her results were off. “I knew they weren't, but you worry – especially working under such tight deadlines,” Radke said.
Salem Town Clerk Susan Wall said the slow computer program was only part of her deadline crunch.
Our ballot clerks had more work at the polls, so it took them longer to return their results,” said Wall. “And we had quite a few polls with new clerks, so they had a lot of questions.”
All the results – and any recounts – must be wrapped up today so that general election ballots can be printed and mailed Saturday to fulfill the federal 45-day rule as it pertains to overseas and military absentee voters, Neale said.
There were other complications.
Of the 3,650 voters who made it to the polls in Derry Tuesday, many exercised the right to go rogue and write in a candidate, said Ives.
She said she's not one to discourage electoral enthusiasm. But she has to draw the line at voters who wade into absurd territory – particularly in an election where every write-in vote must be counted and entered manually into an electronic system.
“Look at this one – Mickey and Minnie Mouse are listed, only they spelled Minnie wrong,” said Ives, sorting through a hefty pile of ballots.
There were at least two write-in candidates who earned more than the minimum 10 votes to qualify for the general election ballot. In year's past, they would have been notified in writing by the secretary of state of their eligibility, and they would have had a number of days to file a declaration of candidacy.
Because of the truncated process, write-ins who want to be on the November ballot have until Friday at 3 p.m. to fax or e-mail their declaration of candidacy. Otherwise, they will be excluded.
Derry state rep candidate Katherine Prudhomme-O'Brien said yesterday she felt undermined by the process – she came up short by eight votes. Although she qualified for a recount under state law, she said she was not aware of the 5 p.m. day after election deadline for requesting a recount. By the time she realized she was eligible, it was too late.
She called Secretary of State Bill Gardner shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday and was told he'd “think about” her recount request. In the end, she was denied.
She said while Gardner's decision was fair, she was frustrated that official results were not posted on the town's web site, even as of yesterday, and the reading of results wasn't being aired continuously on the town's cable station.
Keene Deputy City Clerk said despite recruiting an army of volunteers from city offices to help with data entry, it was still a tough night for all concerned. No one could have anticipated how the changes required by the state were going to play out.
Every election is unique in that sense; it's like an entertainment event. The show goes on and you have no idea what might happen,” Dowd said. “Chaos has its anomalies, and to try to predict those requires information. You do your best to forecast but there are always things that happen because butterfly wings flapped over here instead of over there.”

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