John E. Sununu

The ballot steward

For N.H., getting elections right has special significance

By John E. Sununu
August 8, 2011

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IN 2003, a University of New Hampshire poll asked respondents if they thought their vote was counted accurately. Compared to other states, New Hampshire polled exceptionally high. Elections are complex; there is no simple formula for capturing integrity in balloting rules. But if the recipe for the Granite State’s success were boiled down to two words, they would be “Bill Gardner.’’

For someone who has held elected office for 35 years, New Hampshire’s Secretary of State is remarkably uninterested in publicity. A Democrat, he was first elected in 1976 when the state House handed him a surprise victory over an old-guard Republican. Every two years since, however, legislatures led by both Republicans and Democrats have found at least one thing they agree on: Gardner’s unparalleled stewardship of the office.

So when Gardner voiced concerns about a voter identification law moving through the New Hampshire legislature, both sides of the aisle took note. Governor Lynch vetoed the bill, but with 27 states now requiring voters to show ID at the polls, this is an issue whose time has come. On its face, voter ID adds a level of integrity to the system. If ID is required to board a plane or cash a check, why not to verify one’s status on election day?

For New Hampshire, however, getting the law right has special significance. The quality of our elections adds weight to our claim to the first-in-the-nation primary. Any change that disrupts the efficiency with which the state regularly handles high voter turnout will be used against us - even if it’s the right policy.

In public and private, Gardner makes one concern clear: the risk of unintended consequences. In this regard, Exhibit A would be the Elections Accountability Commission created by Congress as part of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002.

In the wake of the 2000 presidential recount, the commission and HAVA were offered as a government cure-all to ensure that “Florida never happens again.’’ Instead, the actions of the commission read like a classic case of government bureaucracy searching for a purpose. They’ve produced guidelines, regulations, and “best practice’’ handbooks; they’ve given out lots of money with lots of strings attached. Much of it paid for electronic voting systems that have been plagued with problems, actually undermining public confidence in elections.

Gardner’s formula is simpler: pay attention to what works and eliminate the weak links. After the town of Hanover insisted on moving toward punch ballots, the secretary helped expose their weaknesses. They were banned along with lever machines in 1986. In the early 1990s, the state passed a law requiring a paper ballot.

Paper ballots might sound old-fashioned, even if most are counted by highly reliable optical scanners. But such a ballot provides two important things: a paper trail tied back to each voter, and valuable clues to a voter’s intent. New Hampshire does more recounts than any other state, so Gardner has a unique understanding of the depth of human fallibility. We all can make mistakes in marking, submitting, or counting. An ideal voting system minimizes those mistakes, while providing methods to verify results quickly and accurately.

Gardner is most concerned that the proposed voter ID law requires provisional balloting, something the state’s same-day registration currently allows us to avoid. Setting up new systems to segregate, collect, and certify provisional ballots would slow the counting process, delaying official outcomes in close races.

The New Hampshire law would also differentiate among various identification methods. A state trooper’s ID would be valid, but a Manchester police officer’s would not. This may well run afoul of the New Hampshire Constitution, which requires that anyone over 18 “shall have an equal right to vote in any election.’’

These are problems that can be solved. For example, Gardner recommends taking digital images of voters without ID to eliminate the need for provisional ballots. Broader standards for acceptable ID could also eliminate the risk of a lengthy court battle. The challenge isn’t just getting it done, but getting it done right.

Ultimately, the guiding principle should be integrity in the election process. Though everyone might define that differently, Gardner’s definition should resonate with anyone who has ever placed their name on a ballot: Integrity is when the loser can accept defeat, not with happiness, but with confidence that the result accurately reflected the will of the voters.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.