Future Tense

The New Hampshire Primary Might Be the Most Technophobic Election in the Country

A line of voters wait to submit their ballots to a scanner.
Early morning voters cast their votes at the Bishop Leo E. O’Neil Youth Center on November 8, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Darren McCollester/Getty Images

There will be no app malfunctions during the New Hampshire primary for one simple reason: There will be no apps. In the troubled aftermath of the Iowa caucuses, officials in charge of the state’s elections on Tuesday are touting their stubbornly analog approach to voting. Rather than overhauling polling places with mobile apps and voting machines, the Granite State has long opted to stick with democracy’s old faithfuls: pencils and paper ballots. According to officials, not only does the state’s electoral Luddism result in fewer glitches, but it also acts as an old-school cybersecurity measure. “You can’t hack a pencil” has become something of a catchphrase for New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner in the run-up to the primary.

Most polling places in New Hampshire use printed voting registration lists, instead of tablets and laptops, to check people in (poll workers in North Carolina, in contrast, recently had trouble with getting poll books to function on laptops). People then receive a paper ballot, though voters with disabilities can use voting machines, as is required by federal law. The machines, however, ultimately mark a physical ballot. The ballots then go through optical scanners that have all their external ports except for the one for power disabled, and which are programmed by computers disconnected from the internet. (In its 2019 report on Russian election meddling, the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence found that paper ballots and scanners, while not perfect, are nevertheless the “least vulnerable to cyber-attack” compared to other voting systems.) While voting in New Hampshire is not completely lacking in digital components, the core mechanism is pencil to paper, rather than finger to touchscreen.

New Hampshire is by no means problem-proof. According to the Concord Monitor, the local government is looking replace some of the optical scanners it uses to scan ballots because they’re more than two decades old and still run on Windows XP, which Microsoft stopped supporting in 2014. If the scanners fail, though, the backup plan is to go back to counting votes manually. In general, the state tends to pass up voting technology trends. During the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the state decided not to use the Votomatic punch card ballots that ended up producing hanging chads in Florida, leading to a controversial recount and Supreme Court case.

According to Todd Selig, the administrator of the town of Durham in the southern part of the state, New Hampshire has been able to resist implementing many newfangled voting tools because it’s relatively small and thus easier to handle with existing infrastructure. “When you’re dealing with really high numbers in terms of votes cast, and if you’re limited in terms of the volunteers available to count the votes, you then become very dependent on technology to process all the ballots,” he said. New Hampshire has a population of only about 1.3 million.

“The traditional way of conducting elections here in New Hampshire is really a great solution and something that you can reliably say is going to continue well into the future,” said Jon Morgan, a Democratic New Hampshire state senator and senior director at the cybersecurity firm Area 1 Security, who also added that while he’s not completely against using new technologies for elections, but believes they need to be very rigorously tested before implementation.

Indeed, one of the few areas where Morgan thinks New Hampshire could actually use an upgrade is voter registration. “[Automatic voter registration] has been effectively tested and vetted for any sorts of threats and vulnerabilities, and they’re conducted without any cause for concern all over the country every day,” he said. There are 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, that are enacting measures to automatically register the data of eligible voters into a computer system whenever they submit info to the Department of Motor Vehicles or another government agency. “The technology enhances the participation of voters in the electoral process.”

Though New Hampshire’s primary is less likely than the Iowa’s caucuses to end up being a catastrophe, some critics and experts say that there are still various vulnerabilities the state’s election process. For example, 30 percent of the websites that counties use to report preliminary results don’t have basic encryption measures, making it easier for a foreign actor to potentially alter the readouts and sow discord in the process. The state’s voter databases are also a potential target for hacking, particularly at the town and municipality level, but Selig argues that they’re so decentralized that bad actor wouldn’t likely be able to infiltrate a critical mass of files. He said, “I can’t say it would never happen, but it’s very unlikely. If it did happen in one jurisdiction, it would be one out of many.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.