Voting in Hudson: What Happens if the Counting Machine doesn’t Work?

March 6, 2015

by Len Lathrop

Of course, we all know that answer.  If necessary, the moderator, town clerk, selectmen and ballot clerks will count all the votes by hand, one ballot at a time.  No results are calculated by the “rock, paper, scissors” method.

Hopefully, it will not come to ballot-by-ballot hand counting on March the 10th.  Let’s look at what happens before the polls can open on that day at 7 a.m.  Everyone can guess the ballots have been printed, and we won’t even go into the absentee operations, except to say if you haven’t asked for one by now, you best show up at the polls for your choices to be counted.

On Monday morning, eight days before the election, Hudson Town Clerk Patti Barry and Hudson Moderator Paul Inderbitzen are busy testing the counting machines.  Prior to this and before each election, another firm has checked each machine to be sure there is no data from the prior election in the machine and that they have programmed the “card” with the names of the candidates for each office and the warrant questions that were finalized at the deliberative session about a month ago.  Hudson has five of these machines and –for the record– they are kept in the safe in the town clerk’s office.  Now who would you want to tamper with a machine for a job you do for free:  “a volunteer” or a paid $8-a-day Hudson selectman?

But, back to the process, the test ballots that Inderbitzen has marked –two for town questions (the white ones) and one for the school district (the yellow one)– are fed into each machine four times.  So let’s do the math:  three ballots each with two sides each four times. Let’s not go there.  Paul has been the moderator for seven years and has spent over a week setting up this test.  But somehow when you see the tape the control number is one hundred and sixty four.  Yes, someone did win the test election, but Paul and Patti are keeping that a secret.  Their concern by the end of the testing Monday is that that person won by the same number in each of the five machines.

By the way, this testing is open to the public to watch.  Monday it was only this writer and them, however.  When it is a state and national election, a representative of the NH attorney general’s office checks the process and the machine.  Relative to the process, look at the binder on each machine in the picture.  Every time a machine is touched, that touch and who made it must be recorded in the binder that travels with each machine.  For the record, I touched nothing, so my name is not in the binder.

You can see the moderator comparing his spreadsheet to the tape for the first machine tested.  While Hudson uses four machines at the polls, a spare is on hand, and all the machines can read both town and school ballots.  The machine also can detect when there is a write-in.  You know when someone –no names mentioned– puts ‘Mickey Mouse’ in for selectman, that ballot is sorted into a separate box inside the machine to be hand counted when the machines are opened.  All the ballots are locked in the machine during the voting.  Hudson uses four machines, so the school and town are kept separate and no sorting is needed.  Hopefully the main box in the machine is very full and the write-in box is somewhat empty.  Then maybe we will know who won what before 11 p.m.

Here’s another behind-the-scenes gem.  You know how the ballot clerk hands you, in this case, three ballots that you need for voting on the 10th?  Those all had to be collated, which is done throughout the week in the town clerk’s office, when no one is there to register a car or dog or the multitude of other thing people visit the office for.  Like to pay your taxes or to get married (you need a license for that too).  On Monday, next week, the Hudson Community Center needs to be transformed from a basketball court into a polling place.

This transformation is handled by the Highway Department. No surprise there.  All residents must have heard the road agent’s motto: “If it’s not on fire or illegal the highway guys will handle it.  They get this quick-change act completed in about a half a day with the voting booths all set and the tables in place.  Now, if there is snow, and this year who knows when that will be, the scramble is for the moderator and town clerk to find whoever can help set up the polling site.

The moderator has held training for the ballot clerks, even while it seems the same nice people are there each and every election, checking your name off the list and looking at your picture on your driver’s license.  Still, these people must be instructed before each election.

When you vote on Tuesday, think of all the energy that has been spend making your visit as quick and easy as it is.  Everyone who made it to the end of this story must now feel compelled to vote.  Remember it makes Hudson stronger to be led by the people that we collectively have decided are the best to chart the direction of our town toward the future.