We Know How The Candidates Were Made, But What About New Hampshire's Ballots?

Oct 16, 2014

Primary ballots samples.

Anyone who’s been paying attention the last few months knows who and what will be appearing on the ballot in a few weeks. (And if you haven’t been paying attention, get off the sidelines already!) 

But how that information gets on the ballots is a process we don’t think much about.

In the run up to the 2004 election, NHPR's Lisa Peakes visited Captial Offset Printing, the company that had printed ballots for the state for decades.

Here's her story from the NHPR archives:

Offset Printing no longer prints the ballots for the state. David Scanlon at the NH Secretary of State’s office said that the 730,000 ballots the state commissioned for this election cycle are printed by two Capital Region companies, one printing optical scan ballots, the other printing ballots designed for manual counting. 

Optical Scan Ballots
Optical scanners, like this one, are found in a little over half of polling locations around the state.

The lion’s share of the work is done at Evans Printing. 75% of the ballots used in the state are printed here and are optical scan ballots, which need to be precisely calibrated to be properly read by the machines.

This is the first year Evans has printed ballots for the state, and Bob Hollman says this has been a print job like no other for the Bow-based company. Most of the time, he says, the customer shows up, picks up his job and leaves, but the state contract is a bit more demanding.   

The Secretary of State’s office goes beyond simply selecting the correct paper weight (if it’s too thin, the optical scanner could read marks on the opposite side of the ballot), or the correct type of ink (if the ink is too shiny, it could confuse the scanners).

The SOS office provided Evans with a computer program that randomly generates the candidate lists for each town’s ballots to ensure the same candidate (in the case of governor or senator) and party are not at the top of the list each time.

Additionally, staffers from SOS check the ballots as they come off the press before boxing and shipping them to municipalities.

Hollman says they’re about halfway through the job, which includes producing 650,000 ballots for 179 wards/districts statewide. He says he has until 24 October to get them all shipped, including 50 test ballots for each town to make sure their machines will read the ballots correctly. This gives each town a week to review the ballots and request any needed corrections.

When extra ballots are printed and need to be disposed of, they can't simply be put out with the recycling or used as scrap paper for grocery lists - at least not until after the election. The extras are locked up on the premises until the after results are in and winners declared.

Hand Counted Ballots
Moderator Tom Tilotson in Dixville Notch empties the ballot box for the manual count.

While about 75-percent of NH's voters fill in the optical scan ballot, Scanlon says a little under half of polling places in the state still count ballots manually.

Those remaining 80,000 ballots are printed up by Town and Country Reprographics in Concord. This is the company’s first general election for the state, but Town and Country first printed ballots in 2013 for the special Executive Council race held in the wake of Ray Burton's death.

Dan Kenney is VP of sales at Town and Country. He says his firm's job is in many ways much simpler than that of Evans'.

Human counters are less finicky than the machines, so the ballots are printed using run-of-the-mill paper and ink without fear of confounding the automated counter. But as with Evans, protocol at Town and Country is a little different for this job than for their usual task of printing of short run books. Any extra or mangled ballots generated during the printing process are immediately shredded.

Printing is just the first step at Town and Country, because the manual ballots are folded, so all ballots go through a folding machine.

The State Seal is printed on the outside, marking each as an official ballot with the columns of candidates and questions on the inside.

These ballots also come with special instructions for town moderators on distributing and reading them.

From Town and Country's Concord shop, the ballots are delivered to Evans where SOS staff recount, pack and ship them to the 128 towns that count the ballots manually.