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Election Reform Advocates Push to Replace N.H. Voting Machines

Election reform advocates and Democratic lawmakers are mounting pressure in the Legislature to use federal Help America Vote Act funds for cities and towns to replace aging ballot-counting machines.

(TNS) — Election reform advocates and Democratic lawmakers urged the Legislature to use federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) money so cities and towns could replace aging ballot-counting machines.

Secretary of State David Scanlan opposed the idea, however, warning it could deplete the state's HAVA fund designed to support ongoing initiatives that include voter education, poll worker training and voter accessibility.

If the Legislature wants the state to cover the cost of replacing these older machines, then it should pay for it with state taxpayer money in the budget, Scanlan said.

The Ballot Law Commission (BLC) is working on plans to approve the use of replacement technology for the AccuVote machines that are used in cities and towns across the state. Local election officials for nearly two years have searched for replacement parts because they cannot buy new ones.

Both House (HB 447) and Senate Democratic lawmakers (SB 73) have proposed bills to direct the state to use HAVA money for this purpose.

The Special Committee on Voter Confidence that Scanlan created last year recommended the state move toward replacing these machines and to seek "state or federal" sources to help cover that cost.

"What we want to do is get towns in position to replace these dying machines and prevent an Election Day catastrophe that could result," said Rep. Laura Talerski, D- Nashua, and sponsor of the House bill before the House Election Laws Committee Tuesday.

In 2003, Congress passed HAVA after a divisive 2020 presidential election that, among other allowed spending, permitted states to upgrade voter technology.

New Hampshire initially received $17 million and used $6 million of that to create a centralized voter database.

During the pandemic, the state got a $3 million grant to help cities and towns conduct elections in the midst of COVID-19.

Scanlan said New Hampshire is in line to get another $1 million grant this spring for voter security initiatives.

The current balance in the HAVA Fund is $12.9 million and the state spends about $1 million of it annually for ongoing programs, he said.

In New Hampshire, 195 of the state's 308 polling places use AccuVote machines while 113 small towns continue to count ballots by hand.

The cost of new machines range from $6,500 to nearly $9,000 depending on the vendor.

Replacement cost could be higher

Scanlan said the cost for new machines could be much more than that because the competing vendors want to sell more expensive "system packages."

"We are going to need to negotiate with the vendors on what the state and towns would be willing to accept," Scanlan said.

The BLC has been looking at four different companies and one of them, VotingWorks, was tested in three communities during the statewide elections last November.

At local town elections later this month, Dominion, another vendor, will have machines tested in Milford and Londonderry while Winchester will test the machine of a third vendor, Election Systems & Software, Scanlan said.

"The bottom line is that the state has been incredibly responsible using those HAVA funds in a very safe and efficient way," Scanlan said. "It would be short sighted to try and spend these monies on one-time things and putting us in danger that we could not sustain that fund. In the end, the taxpayers have to fund the bill."

Officials with the New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights, the New Hampshire Municipal Association and Open Democracy Now all endorsed this proposal.

"This is a fiscally responsible choice, removes the burden for town budgets and protects our election infrastructure," said MacKenzie St. Germain, director of the voting rights group.

Rep. Alvin See, R- Loudon, said his town is already considering a line item in its next budget to pay for new machines and it's unfair to penalize towns that are planning ahead.

Scanlan also said the need to replace these machines is less pressing than proponents maintain.

"It is an urgent issue; I don't agree it is as urgent as expressed in some of the testimony today," Scanlan began.

" The Ballot Law Commission is aggressive working towards approval of a device that could be replaced, maybe by 2024 for some communities, but more likely be ready for 2026 (election)."

Talerski proposed to the House committee an amendment to limit this grant program for voting machines to no more than $3 million

"This would allow this very needed, one-time relief while maintaining the HAVA balance the secretary of state would like to see," Talerski said.

At Tuesday's hearing, 108 signed up online in support of the bill while five opposed it.

©2023 The New Hampshire Union Leader, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.