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AG finds ‘significant defects’ in Laconia Ward 6 elections, orders moderator to resign

By NANCY WEST and PAULA TRACY - InDepthNH.org | Aug 17, 2022

Laconia City Councilor Tony Felch resigned as Ward 6 moderator. (Facebook photo)

CONCORD – Attorney General John Formella has demanded the resignation of Laconia Ward 6 moderator Tony Felch after reviewing circumstances surrounding 179 ballots across multiple elections being cast but not counted by election officials.

“In addition to the uncounted ballots, the investigation revealed a pattern of unintentional double-counting of votes by certain election officials. The Attorney General directed the resignation of the Ward 6 moderator, Tony Felch, who has resigned,” according to a news release Formella issued Tuesday.

Formella also found there were significant defects in vote counting and the administration of elections in Ward 6.

“As such, the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Attorney General, will be appointing an election monitor for the next election, the Sept. 13, 2022, primary election,” Formella said.

Felch, who is a Laconia city councilor, at first said he had no comment when reached by phone. But then said the problem was lack of training.

“I don’t think it affected any race,” Felch said.

Formella disagreed.

“While the final combined impact of the failure to count cast ballots and double-counting is not able to be determined due to grossly inadequate Ward 6 election records, there remains a possibility that the number of votes lost from the uncounted ballots or added from double-counting could have been outcome determinative for some races,” Formella said.

Formella didn’t immediately respond when asked which races could have been impacted.

It was at the Nov. 2, 2021 City Election that the Laconia Ward 5 moderator discovered Laconia Ward 6 ballots from prior elections in the side compartment of a ballot collection box.

Formella conducted an investigation that included holding a public session at which ballots and voting materials were inventoried. At the public session on April 6, 2022 the ballots were inventoried to determine the number of ballots and the election in which they were cast.

“All 179 of the ballots found in the side compartment were from 2020 elections, with 120 from the Primary and 59 from the General Election. None of the votes from those ballots were counted in those elections.

“The ballots in the side compartment were not counted because Laconia Ward 6 Moderator Felch did not understand the basic functions of the ballot collection box,” Formella said.

Additional investigation revealed that Felch and another election official also failed to understand the procedure for counting write-in votes, the release said.

“As such, instead of hand-counting only write-in votes on cast ballots, they counted all the votes on ballots with a write-in vote. This resulted in dozens of 2020 General Election ballots being counted twice–once by the ballot counting device and a second time by Moderator Felch and a ballot clerk–leading cumulatively to approximately 500 double-counted votes across all races on the ballot.

“With 15 races on the ballot, counting all races on one ballot with a write-in vote would result in 14 double-counted votes.

“While double-counting resulted in approximately 500 excess votes recorded by election officials, the total number of ballots double-counted is likely to be between 38 and 54,” the release said.

Formella’s investigation also revealed that Laconia Ward 6 election documentation failed to accurately record basic election operations, including reconciling the number of ballots cast with the number of votes recorded.

For the purposes of that reconciliation, the magnitude of the error in failing to count votes was at least partially offset by the magnitude of the error in double-counting ballots containing write-in votes, according to the release.

“The inability of election officials to reconcile election results should have triggered immediate concern. However, neither Moderator Felch nor the former City Clerk notified the Secretary of State or Attorney General’s Office of the issues,” the release said.

Since the deadlines for any recount for races on the ballots in question have long passed, there are no statutory mechanisms to revisit the vote counts for 2020 elections in Laconia Ward 6, the release said.

Formella found no evidence supporting deliberate or intentional misconduct by Laconia Ward 6 election officials.

“Instead of the errors and failures described above being caused by knowing actions, they were driven by Moderator Felch’s complete failure to understand the duties and operations of elections and his role as the moderator.

“Moderator Felch’s actions and failures are completely unacceptable and entirely unfair to the citizens of Laconia Ward 6 who trust that their election officials will work diligently to ensure that their constitutional right to vote is honored and protected,” the release said.

The investigation indicates that Felch’s actions were extraordinarily careless, but not intentional. The matter will be closed after appointment of an election monitor for the Sept. 13, 2022, primary election and receipt of that monitor’s subsequent report, the release said.

Secretary of State David Scanlan said human error was to blame and is the exception to the rule in New Hampshire.

“We rely on local volunteers to man polling places,” Scanlan said. “It’s a very human process…sometimes there are errors but overall, the system works well.”

He said the moderator for Ward 6 will be replaced likely by the supervisors of the checklist in time for the Sept. 13 primary.

Scanlan noted that the role his office will play is naming an individual to oversee the election in Ward 6 as they will also be providing such staffing at Windham and Bedford where vote counting issues have also occurred.

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