The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside a ‘wild’ New Hampshire recount with the state House at stake

Observers in Concord, N.H., on Thursday during a recount for a New Hampshire state House race. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)

CONCORD, N.H. — On a recent rainy morning, dozens of people fixed their eyes on Patricia Lovejoy, a senior election official in New Hampshire, as she issued instructions ahead of a key recount.

No food or drink on the tables. No touching or handling of the ballots, except by the people doing the counting. Keep your voices down.

More than a week had passed since voters across the country went to the polls. In Washington, the main outcomes of an unusually tight midterm election were finally clear.

But in Concord, the capital of New Hampshire, the will of the voters was still being parsed.

In this purple state, voters appear to have split the 400-member House of Representatives nearly down the middle. Control of the chamber hinges on 28 recounts scheduled into next week.

What is unfolding in New Hampshire is a microcosm of a closely divided country voting in tightly fought contests, as well as an illustration of the electoral system’s resilience. So far the recounts, which are open to the public, have proceeded calmly.

Longtime observers of the state’s politics can’t remember an election in which the state House — the largest in the country — was so evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. The number of recounts requested by candidates, meanwhile, is among the highest ever.

“We’re in uncharted waters,” said New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan, who has been involved in the state’s elections for four decades and was part of a recent initiative to improve voter confidence.

Scanlan personally oversees the recount process, which takes place inside the State Archives building.

On Wednesday morning, Lovejoy, 68, surveyed the gathered crowd. She had everyone’s full attention: There were two nervous candidates, a handful of lawyers in suits, four recount workers and a slew of party operatives and observers.

“I know this is a very close race,” Lovejoy said.

In a time of distrust, how one state is trying to boost voter confidence

In the contest for the Strafford County District 8 seat, Republican David Walker had narrowly prevailed over his Democratic opponent, Chuck Grassie, on election night.

His margin of victory: one vote.

What followed over the next three hours would not just establish the results of the race. It would also be crucial in determining control of the state legislature. Republicans won a firm majority in the state Senate, but the House was on a razor’s edge. Before the count, Republicans held 201 seats, Democrats held 199.

Scanlan, 66, stepped up to a cardboard box of ballots sealed with red tape indicating that the contents were void if opened. He used a retractable knife to slice through the tape and placed a large pile of ballots on a table. The recount had begun.

‘This is bonkers’

Inside the atrium at the State Archives, observers huddled around two sets of screens across from the four workers. The screens showed every ballot they touched, every movement of their hands.

It’s a truism that every vote counts. But it’s highly unusual that a single vote could swing a contest, let alone a chamber. Among Republicans, the mood was tense. Democrats were slightly giddy. Recounts earlier in the week had flipped two seats in their favor.

The large size of New Hampshire’s House makes it unique in the nation. For some, it’s an infuriating anachronism. For others, it’s an expression of an older ideal of representative democracy. At 400 seats for a population of 1.39 million, each member represents about 3,500 people.

This year’s unusually large number of recounts speaks to a lack of confidence in some aspects of elections, Scanlan said, along with the sheer closeness of the contests.

In New Hampshire’s congressional races, Democrats were victorious. But the state’s voters also resoundingly reelected Republican Chris Sununu as governor. Don Bolduc, a Donald Trump-endorsed Republican candidate for U.S. Senate and initially a vocal election denier, lost his race to Maggie Hassan, the Democratic incumbent.

The GOP thought it could make gains in New England. A blue wave hit instead.

In New Hampshire, any candidate in a race where the margin of victory is within 20 percent of the total vote can request a recount. If the margin is between 3 percent and 20 percent, the candidate must bear the full cost of the process. If it is 3 percent or smaller, however, there is only a nominal fee.

Members of the public are welcome to witness the process for themselves. In 2008, during a recount for a presidential primary, one candidate’s supporters showed up carrying handguns, Scanlan recalled. “They said it’s our constitutional right to do that, and in New Hampshire, it is,” he said. It did make “some people nervous, especially the workers,” he said.

There were no handguns visible Wednesday. Those gathered for the recount watched the screens intently, some seated, some standing in rows behind them. On the screen: a monotonous succession of identical forms, each bearing the imprint of an individual voter.

It required intense concentration from those watching. Was that oval filled in? Did the voter use Xs or check marks instead of filling in the ovals as instructed? Designated observers for the candidates can dispute ballots, and both sides did. The contested forms were set aside for further review.

After about two hours, it was Scanlan’s turn to look at the challenged ballots, roughly a dozen in all. He sat down at the table with his tools — a pen, a stapler, some slips of paper — and put on his reading glasses.

Some voters had used check marks instead of ovals. Some used check marks and ovals. One person’s oval looked more like the eye of a hurricane. Another made a mark like the imprint of a bird’s foot. As lawyers for the candidates huddled around him, Scanlan explained each decision he reached on what the voter intended.

If they disagreed with his decision, they could appeal it to the state’s Ballot Law Commission, which will meet at the end of November.

One ballot was particularly gnarly. For every office except state representative, the voter had filled in the oval for a candidate while also writing an X over the oval. But for state representative, there was an X for Walker and a filled-in oval for Grassie. Scanlan’s decision: The ballot was an “overvote” and would not count for either candidate.

Paul Twomey, the lawyer for Grassie, said he would challenge that decision to the Ballot Law Commission. Sean List, the lawyer for Walker, said he, too, would challenge it.

“Thank you for creating bipartisanship,” List said, to laughter from the crowd.

At last, the sheets of paper with the tallies were given to the secretary of state’s staff for final tabulation. The noise level in the atrium rose. A large box of doughnuts in a corner was nearly empty.

The wait for the result felt like the commercial break before the announcement of the winner on “American Idol,” said a Democratic operative who spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to comment to the press.

“This is bonkers,” she said. As she had watched the votes being tallied, she checked her Apple Watch. Her heart rate was up to 130 beats a minute.

Matt Wilhelm, a Democratic state representative, echoed the sentiment. “It’s pretty wild,” he said. “It feels like anything can happen.” Someone called out from the next room. It was time to announce the results.

‘It’s just a sign of the times’

Scanlan stood to one side of the main research room at the State Archives, a large space with navy blue carpeting and wooden cabinets holding marriage and death records from before 1950. At the front of the room was a large portrait of William Plumer, a governor of New Hampshire in the early 19th century and a copious record-keeper.

Going into the recount, Scanlan said, Walker, the Republican, had 971 votes to 970 for Grassie, the Democrat. After the recount, both candidates had 970 votes.

A ripple went through the room: Could this be true? A tie? Both sides planned to make further challenges to the Ballot Law Commission, Scanlan added, but if the result remained a tie, then it would be up to the state House of Representatives to decide who the winner is.

There was a wave of laughter mixed with a groan of disbelief. But for one person — Grassie — there was elation. “I’m numb from head to toe!” said Grassie, a 70-year-old wearing an American-flag tie.

Walker came up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder and shook his hand. The two men have known each other for decades and live on the same street. Walker didn’t say anything, merely throwing up his hands in a gesture that seemed to convey, “Can you believe it?”

“It’s just a sign of the times,” Walker, 58, said a few minutes later. Elections are “hard-fought at every level.”

No one could recall the last time there was a tie in a race for the New Hampshire House, but it turns out it has happened before. The last time was in 1992, according to a memo prepared by the House clerk in 2014. It was resolved by a special runoff election.

The recounts continued into the early evening. Outside, the sky grew dark. After nine hours of fastidious, repetitive labor, the counting workers started to head home. Scanlan and Lovejoy began readying the room for the next day of House recounts. They’re scheduled through Tuesday, including a continuation of a recount that state Democrats are challenging in a lawsuit.

Asked about his reaction to the tie earlier in the day, Scanlan laughed. “I’ve reached the point where nothing surprises me,” he said. “You like to have the races determined convincingly, but these things happen — and there’s a process for dealing with it.”