CONCORD — When workers publicly tallied the votes Tuesday in the Nov. 8 election for District 24 of the New Hampshire state Senate, they each showed a ballot, and observers kept responding with a single word: “challenge.”
The observers didn’t challenge every single ballot, but they seemed to raise a challenge every time they spotted a mail-in ballot.
Challenges are a normal part of the counting process. They are used to report concerns that the Secretary of State needs to review and decide how the vote should be recorded. Candidates who are not satisfied with the secretary’s decision can then contact the Electoral Law Commission to request another level of review.
But the large number of challenges raised on Tuesday added an unusual layer to an already unusual recount process.
Republican nominee Lou Gargiulo of Hampton Falls requested the recount, although early poll results showed he lost by 3,683 votes, or 11.4 percentage points, to Democratic nominee Debra Altschiller of Stratham in the district, which represents seven Seacoast cities.
New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan said he couldn’t recall what was the widest range of any recount his office had conducted in recent decades, but he confirmed this race was among the widest. Regardless, he said he’s laser-focused on the task at hand.
“They are exercising their right to contest ballots and we’re going to do a recount,” Scanlan said.
Gargiulo expects a sizable bill
Gargiulo was eligible to request this recount under state law as he lost less than 20%. But since he lost more than 3%, he has to pay the full cost of the recount. It won’t be cheap.
The recount dragged on for more than eight hours on Tuesday and was due to continue on Saturday. The workers have recounted the votes from Exeter, Hampton and Stratham and they still have to work their way through the ballots from Greenland, Hampton Falls, North Hampton and Rye.
Reached by phone, Gargiulo said Tuesday he expects to spend more than $2,000 on the recount.
“My team recommended it and I stand by them,” he said.
Gargiulo said his team wants to see what the result of a hand count compares to a machine count and also gain insights into absentee voting.
“It’s not that easy to get that information, and when we do that in a live recount, we can see all those things,” he said.
“We’re just on a reconnaissance mission to ensure the integrity of the process,” he added. “If there is a problem, we will of course announce it. If there is no problem, there will be no problem.”
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Gargiulo said he could not attend Tuesday’s recount due to a scheduling conflict. He confirmed that Michael Bean was at the recount on his behalf. Bean declined an interview request.
State Senator Jim Gray, R-Rochester, who watched the recount from across the room, said he wasn’t involved with the challenges and needed to do some research to understand their purpose.
“Before we start the session, I’ll do my best to find out exactly what’s going on,” he said.
Activist targeting postal voting advised Gargiulo
Absentee voting is permitted in New Hampshire for certain situations. This includes religious practice, disability or illness, work commitments, or absence throughout polling station opening hours.
Daniel Richard of Auburn, a non-lawyer who describes himself as a self-taught constitutional scholar, claimed some of the scenarios in which state law allows postal voting are unconstitutional.
Richard, who attended Tuesday’s recount at the state archives, said he had advised the Gargiulo campaign to contest all postal votes.
“By challenging them all, you are now forcing them before a competent court to see if these exceptions are valid,” he said.
Richard claimed the absentee ballot was relevant to litigation he was pushing on the matter. Richard was behind a lawsuit that tried unsuccessfully earlier this year to block the use of ballot counting machines.
Gargiulo said members of his team have had discussions with Richard and he believes his team is challenging mail-in voting, which “is not necessarily consistent with the state’s constitution.”
Richard, who organized a group called the New Hampshire Committee of Safety, has campaigned against the expanded use of mail-in voting for at least two years. Speaking during a rally in Concord in December 2020, he filed a 10-page document with state officials alleging they were “conspiring to conduct an illegal election” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, responded at the time that the state’s elections were conducted with integrity and recounts confirmed the results, Nancy West reported for InDepthNH.
“While some dislike the results, our elections were fair, transparent and accurate,” Sununu said.
Recount has Democrats scratching their heads
Altschiller, who watched the recount at her race on Tuesday, said the state’s temporary but now-defunct expansion of mail-in voting because of the coronavirus pandemic is great.
“We should have no-parole voting in New Hampshire,” she said. “For us to require people to qualify to vote by mail is a form of voter suppression.”
For example, voters don’t know if they or someone they care for will get sick on election day, Altschiller said.
“I personally voted, and I was thrilled to do that, but I had three kids, and they’re wildcards,” she added.
Altschiller said she’d like to know why Gargiulo’s team seems to contest every absentee ballot, regardless of which candidate the voter chose. She said she has personally witnessed more than 700 ballot-by-mail challenges from Hampton voters alone. Voters should be assured that the Secretary of State’s office will count every ballot, she added.
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“I have been told that it is extremely unusual and also frowned upon to request a recount when a comma separates the winner from the loser in the number of votes,” Altschiller said. “If Mr. Gargiulo thinks he can get over 3,000 votes, I have no idea what constituency he’s targeting, but 11% is a very big number to turn around.”
Altschiller, a current state representative, appears to have won the seat vacated by Democratic Senator Tom Sherman to run for governor.
New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley, who was also among the room full of people watching Gargiulo’s recount on Tuesday, said the whole ordeal appears to be the product of a wealthy man wasting money on unsuccessful electoral ambitions.
“It’s nonsensical,” he said.
State officials conducted more than two dozen recounts for state representative races this week and last week, but Gargiulo’s recount is the only one for a Senate seat.
Melanie Levesque, the Democratic nominee who lost to incumbent Republican Senator Kevin Avard in Senate District 12, also requested a recount, but rescinded the request and announced that she is running for secretary of state.
Levesque lost her Senate race by 688 votes, or about 2.5 percentage points. She was criticized for requesting a recount in a race with that margin.
These stories are shared by the Granite State News Collaborative. Steven Porter is the founding editor of Granite Memo, a website and newsletter devoted to New Hampshire politics.
Debra Altschiller, New Hampshire State Assemblyman and State Senator-elect, is the wife of Howard Altschiller, Editor-in-Chief of the Seacoast Media Group.