In a “wild” New Hampshire narrative where the House of Representatives is at stake

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CONCORD, NH — On a rainy morning, dozens of people turned their eyes to Patricia Lovejoy, a senior election official in New Hampshire, as she delivered instructions ahead of an important recount.

No food or drink on the tables. No touching or handing of the ballots except by the people doing the counting. Keep your voices low.

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

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

In this purple state, voters appear to have split the 400-seat House of Representatives almost down the middle. Chamber control is pending 28 recounts scheduled for next week.

What is unfolding in New Hampshire is a microcosm of a tightly divided country voting in fiercely competitive contests and an example of the resilience of the electoral system. So far, the publicly available recounts have been quiet.

Longtime observers of state politics can recall no election in which the House of Representatives — the nation’s largest — was so evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Meanwhile, the number of recounts requested by candidates is among the highest ever.

“We are 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 involved in a recent voter confidence initiative.

Scanlan personally oversees the recounting process that takes place in the State Archives building.

Lovejoy, 68, surveyed the assembled crowd on Wednesday morning. She had everyone’s full attention: there were two nervous candidates, a handful of lawyers in suits, four narrators, and a crowd of party officials and observers.

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

How a state tries to boost voter confidence in a time of distrust

Republican David Walker narrowly defeated his Democratic opponent Chuck Grassie for the seat in Strafford County District 8 on election night.

His lead to victory: one vote.

What followed in the next three hours was not only intended to record the results of the race. It would also be crucial in determining control of the state legislature. Republicans won a clear majority in the Senate, but the House of Representatives was on the brink. Before the count, Republicans held 201 seats and Democrats 199.

Scanlan, 66, approached a box of ballots sealed with red tape, indicating the contents were invalid if opened. He used a retractable knife to cut the tape and placed a large stack of ballots on a table. The recount had begun.

In the atrium of the State Archives, observers crowded around two screens opposite 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. Tension was tense among Republicans. Democrats were easily dizzy. Recounts earlier in the week had turned two seats in their favor.

The size of the New Hampshire home makes it unique in the nation. For some, it’s an annoying anachronism. For others it is an expression of an older ideal of representative democracy. With 400 seats for a population of 1.39 million, each member represents approximately 3,500 people.

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

The Democrats were victorious in the congressional elections in New Hampshire. But state voters also elected Republican Chris Sununu as governor with great success. Don Bolduc, a Donald Trump-backed Republican nominee for the US Senate, originally a vocal electoral denier, lost his race to Maggie Hassan, the Democratic incumbent.

The GOP thought they could make a profit in New England. Instead, a blue wave hit.

In New Hampshire, any candidate in a race where the winning margin is less than 20 percent of the total votes can request a recount. If the margin is between 3 percent and 20 percent, the candidate must bear the full costs of the procedure. However, if it is 3 percent or less, only a nominal fee applies.

Members of the public are welcome to witness the process for themselves. In 2008, during a recount for a presidential primary, supporters of a candidate emerged with handguns, Scanlan recalled. “They said it was our constitutional right to do this, and in New Hampshire it is,” he said. It “made some people nervous, especially the workers,” he said.

No handguns were seen on Wednesday. Those gathered for the recount watched the screens intently, some seated, others standing in rows behind them. On the screen: a monotonous succession of identical forms, each bearing the imprint of a single voter.

It required maximum concentration from the spectators. Has the oval been filled in? Did the voter use Xs or ticks instead of filling in the ovals as instructed? Designated observers for the candidates can challenge ballots, and both sides have done so. The contested forms were set aside for further consideration.

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

Some voters had used ticks instead of ovals. Some used ticks and ovals. A person’s oval looked more like the eye of a hurricane. Another left a mark like a bird’s footprint. As the candidates’ lawyers crowded around him, Scanlan explained every decision he had made in terms of voter intent.

If they disagree with his decision, they can appeal to the state Electoral Law Commission, which will meet at the end of November.

One ballot was particularly gnarly. For each office except that of State Representative, the elector had filled in the oval for a candidate, at the same time writing an X over the oval. But for state officials, there was an X for Walker and a filled oval for Grassie. Scanlan’s Decision: The vote was an “over-vote” and would not count for either candidate.

Paul Twomey, Grassie’s attorney, said he would appeal that decision to the Electoral Law Commission. Sean List, Walker’s attorney, said he would also take action.

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

Finally, the count sheets were handed over to the Secretary of State’s staff for finalization. The noise level in the atrium increased. A large donut box in one corner was almost empty.

Waiting for the result felt like the commercial break before the winner was announced on American Idol, said one Democrat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to speak to the press.

“This is crazy,” she said. As she watched the votes being counted, she looked at her Apple Watch. Her heart rate was up to 130 beats per minute.

Matt Wilhelm, a Democratic Republican Assemblyman, echoed this. “It’s pretty wild,” he said. “It feels like anything could happen.” Someone called from the next room. It was time to announce the results.

“It’s just a sign of the times”

Scanlan stood next to the State Archives’ main research room, a large room with navy carpeting and wooden cabinets containing marriage and death records from before 1950. At the front of the room hung a large portrait of William Plumer, a governor of New Hampshire in the early 19th century and a frequent record holder.

Addressing 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: Can this be true? A tie? Both sides planned to further challenge the Electoral Law Commission, Scanlan added, but if the result remained a tie, it would be up to the state House of Representatives to decide who the winner is.

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

Walker came up behind him, patted his shoulder, and shook his hand. The two men have known each other for decades and live on the same street. Walker said nothing, just raised his hands in a gesture that seemed to convey, “Can you believe it?”

“It’s just a sign of the times,” Walker, 58, said minutes later. Elections are “hard fought at all levels”.

No one could remember the last time there was a tie in a race for the New Hampshire House, but turns out it’s happened before. The last time was in 1992, according to a 2014 memo by the House Representative. It was decided by a special runoff.

The stories lasted until the early evening. Outside the sky grew dark. After nine hours of demanding, repetitive work, the counting workers made their way home. Scanlan and Lovejoy began preparing the room for the next day of house telling. They are scheduled through Tuesday, including a continuation of a recount that state Democrats are challenging in a lawsuit.

When asked about his reaction to the tie earlier in the day, Scanlan laughed. “I’ve gotten to the point where nothing surprises me anymore,” he said. “You like it when the races are convincingly determined, but these things happen – and there is a process for how you deal with them.”

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