In a small New Hampshire town, the 2020 election still rages

National

In this May 7, 2021 photo, Kristi St. Laurent, who ran for a House seat in the 2020 election, poses in front of Town Hall in Windham, N.H. St. Laurent, who requested a recount after losing the 2020 election by 24 votes, has led to a debate over the integrity of the election in Windham and prompted Trump supporters to suggest the dispute could illustrate wider problems with the election system. (AP Photo/Michael Casey)

WINDHAM, N.H. (AP) — Meetings of the Windham Board of Selectmen are usually as sleepy as they sound — a handful of residents from the New Hampshire town, a discussion of ambulance fees, maybe a drainage study.

So when a crowd of about 500 people showed up last week, some waving American flags, carrying bullhorns and lifting signs questioning the presidential election, Bruce Breton knew things were about to change.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Breton, who has served on the board for 18 years. “The groundswell from the public is unbelievable.”

The crowd at the Monday meeting had been fired up by conservative media, which in recent weeks has seized on the town’s election results for four seats in the state House as suspect. The attention, fanned by a Donald Trump adviser who happens to be a Windham resident, has helped a routine recount spiral, ultimately engulfing the town in a false theory that the national election was stolen from Trump.

It doesn’t seem to matter that Republicans won all four state House seats in question.

The dust-up shows just how far Trump’s election lies — and the search for evidence to support them — have burrowed into American politics, even the most local. Like House Republicans in Washington fighting over what some call the “Big Lie” and lawmakers in Arizona conducting a partisan “recount,” this bedroom community is still wrestling with the aftermath of 2020.

The trouble started when Kristi St. Laurent, a Democratic candidate for the state House, requested a recount after falling 24 votes short in the November election. Instead of gaining a few votes in her House race as she expected, the 53-year-old physical therapist learned that the recount showed that four of the Republicans each received an additional 300 votes. Laurent lost 99 votes.

“You expect everybody to go up a little bit so these results were pretty alarming. … These were just crazy results,” she said.

The discrepancy inspired the legislature to take up the matter. Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill authorizing an audit of the town’s ballot counting machines and hand tabulations. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed the bill and insisted that “New Hampshire elections are safe, secure, and reliable.”

Conservative media outlets and Trump supporters saw things differently. They viewed the results in Windham, a town of 16,000 near the Massachusetts border, as a chance to prove that something more nefarious was amiss. If things were suspicious in Windham, maybe they were across the state and beyond. They just needed evidence.

On Thursday, Trump joined the fray, congratulating “the great Patriots” in Windham “for their incredible fight to seek out the truth” about fraud that he alleged, without evidence, had affected the New Hampshire races and his own reelection contest. Trump had been to Windham in the past and is not shy about suggesting that voter fraud is rampant in the Granite State. In 2017, he claimed that he and former Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte would have won in New Hampshire the previous year if not for voters bused in from out of state. There is no evidence to support that claim.

Corey Lewandowski, a current Trump adviser who calls Windham home and said he talked to Trump about the states races on Monday, said the large turnout at the board meeting showed that voters are “gravely concerned that the election system is not properly secured and that there is the potential at least for results that don’t align with what voters want.”

Lewandowski said the results in Windham suggested a statewide audit was necessary to check other vote counting machines. “Unless a recount was done in these other communities, we don’t know if the machine tallies are accurate,” he said. “The larger concerns is this: if people don’t believe that there is integrity in the voting process, they won’t participate. That is the real issue.”

Sununu pushed back on Trump’s comments, calling New Hampshire a model for how to do things right.

“A discrepancy of 300 votes out of over 800,000 cast does not define massive voter fraud by any means. We passed a bill, we’re going to do an audit in Windham. If anything, I think the fact that we focus on 300 votes goes to the integrity of our system.,” he said. “We have the best system in the country, a system where will do any audit even if it’s over a couple hundred votes. And it’s not for President Trump or Chris Sununu or Joe Biden, it’s about the citizens who cast the vote. That’s why we do the audit, to make sure every vote is counted.”

The latest controversy is over which auditors will be chosen to examine the results.

The law calls for three auditors: one chosen by the state, one by Windham and a third by those two picks. The selectmen in Windham voted 3-1 last month to pick Mark Lindeman with Verified Voting, rejecting demands from Trump supporters to choose Jovan Hutton Pulitzer. The town received thousands of emails from around the country demanding it pick Pulitzer, who, according to media reports, claims to have invented technology that can detect fraudulent ballots.

That prompted the crowd to turn up at Monday’s board meeting; some carried posters supporting of Pulitzer. The crowd was so large that the meeting was moved to the high school.

“That was angry mob if I have ever seen one,” said St. Laurent, who attended the meeting.

The crowd had hoped the board would reconsider its pick. It did not and now the auditors have until May 27 by law to complete their work. They will do an audit, which includes another hand count, at the Edward Cross Training Center in Pembroke. Some outside observers, including at least 18 from Windham, will be allowed to monitor. It will also be livestreamed.

In Windham, some residents simply want to find out what happened in their election. Was it the aging counting machines? A human error in the recount? Maybe a bunch of extra votes slipped into the count?

But for others, the voter discrepancy has led them to ask larger questions about Trump’s loss in November.

“I am not going to speculate on anything until I get the answers to the Windham thing, now that there are doubts about what is going on. I just want to know what happened in Windham,” said Breton, a Trump supporter and the only board member to lobby for Pulitzer.

“I would think you would have to question voting among the whole state. Windham is just a microcosm of what is going on,” he said. “If you can’t answer the question of what happens to those votes, you might have questions about what happened to other votes in the state.”

St. Laurent dismisses the idea that Windham’s results should cast doubt on the larger process.

Recounts are not unusual in New Hampshire, which elects 424 lawmakers every two years and allows candidates to request recounts if the difference in votes is less than 20% of the total ballots cast. There have been at least 15 recounts after each of the past four election cycles, with only a handful of outcomes changed.

The audit, she said, should help determine what went wrong. But for outsiders who see a wider campaign of voter fraud, it won’t matter all that much.

“When there is nothing shown, they are just going to go to the next place,” she said. “I am hoping we can return back to just being our own little town.”

___

Associated Press writer Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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