An election that survived several challenges to the results must now survive at least two challenges to the process.
At the Sept. 20 Town Council meeting the Derry Council heard from residents who were dissatisfied with the protocols of the Sept. 13 primary, with a focus on the handling of ballots and the performance of Moderator Mary Till.
In the public comment portion of the meeting, Republican State Representative Katherine Prudhomme-O’Brien stated that Till, who was also on the ballot for Democratic State Representative, should have appointed a Moderator Pro Tem to conduct the election. Prudhomme-O’Brien said she had sent a letter to the Ballot Law Commission signed by herself and three other Republican candidates, Tom Cardon, David Love and Frank Sapareto.
Prudhomme-O’Brien and Cardon were Republican incumbents who did not get reelected; Love was a challenger who did not get elected; and Sapareto, a former Representative and former State Senator, won the primary.
Prudhomme-O”Brien contended that as a ballot candidate, Till was disqualified from conducting the election and should have appointed a substitute.
Her supervising the election was illegal according to RSA 665:6, Prudhomme-O’Brien said. She said the Ballot Law Commission could order another primary election.
Prudhomme-O’Brien said the Ballot Law Commission was meeting the next day and she hoped to have her request discussed.
Contacted Friday, Prudhomme-O’Brien said while she was able to explain her position to the Ballot Law Commission, they expressed concern about their jurisdiction.
“They told me they only take on cases regarding nominations, the nominating process, and getting names on the ballot,” she said. “They said in handling these cases in the past they have not been successful, and it always comes back to them.”
Prudhomme-O’Brien is considering taking the matter to the Attorney General’s office, but hasn’t decided yet. “I need a strong burden of proof,” she said.
Prudhomme-O’Brien said she thinks Till is honest. “I have spoken to her and have a positive sense about her,” she said. “She is doing her best.”
Prudhomme-O’Brien’s concern is more in the matter of appearances, she said.
A special election would be an ideal solution, but Prudhomme-O’Brien agreed that is probably not going to happen. “There’s so much tied to it, with a general election,” she said. “It would be inconvenient. It would be different if this were a town election.”
She said she hopes that in the future, the election team will be more concerned about stricter accordance with the RSAs. (See letter page 4.)
In a phone interview Sept. 21, Chairman Brian Chirichiello, also a candidate for Republican state representative who won the primary, dismissed Prudhomme-O’Brien’s charges. “When Margaret Ives was moderator, she had to run for re-election (as moderator), and she conducted elections while she was on the ballot,” Chirichiello pointed out.
However, he said, Prudhomme-O’Brien was “following proper procedure” by going to the Ballot Law Commission.
At the Aug. 16 Town Council meeting, Till discussed the issue with the five Councilors who were on the same ballot: Chirichiello, Phyllis Katsakiores and Richard Tripp, Republican state reps; Joshua Bourdon, Democratic contender for Executive Council; and Charles Foote, a candidate for the Republican state convention. At that time Till told the Council members, “If your name is on the ballot, you are not allowed to touch the ballot box.”
She reiterated this in a phone interview Sept. 21. According to RSA 658:24, she said, if the moderator’s name appears on the ballot, he or she is not allowed to handle marked ballots or count votes, neither of which she did.
Till said she went to “great lengths” to observe this rule and appointed assistant moderators for the handling of the ballots.
“I am comfortable with my decision,” Till, who was elected in March upon the retirement of Ives, said.
While Till didn’t touch a single ballot, or box, other residents expressed concern about who might have.
In the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Marc Flattes asked Councilor Jim Morgan, “Did you carry the ballot box into this building by yourself?”
Flattes elaborated that RSA 659 requires two people, one from each party, to deliver the ballot box to the venue for counting. “How long was Jim Morgan in possession of the ballot box?” Flattes asked.
Morgan said, “I was the registered Republican person. Ms. Till appointed a Democrat. He escorted me to my vehicle. I drove to the Municipal Center in my vehicle, he drove behind me, and he escorted me into the Municipal Center.”
Cardon, a former Town Councilor, said, “Mr. Morgan transported the ballots. We were told by a past Moderator not to touch the box by ourselves.” This, he said, “looks awful.”
But Till said in her phone interview last week, “Charlie Zoeller was the appointed Democrat. He followed Mr. Morgan in his car. If Mr. Morgan pulled over to do something with the ballots, Charlie would have known it.”
And Zoeller, also in a phone interview Sept. 21, said Morgan didn’t have time to tamper with the ballots in the three-minute drive from Gilbert H. Hood Middle School to the Municipal Center.
“He got in his car, I followed him, and we got out of our cars at the same time,” Zoeller, former chair of the local Derry Democratic party, said.
Till added, “The box Mr. Morgan carried and all the boxes of ballots were sealed. The seal was signed by two Councilors and the Moderator, and it was broken in public.”
And Chirichiello said it didn’t break protocol to have Morgan carry the box. “Jim was not on the ballot,” he pointed out. He was there and said, “They left together, with a sealed box.”
In the public comment portion of the Sept. 20 meeting, residents also expressed discomfort with the way the vote tallies were handled.
Flattes noted that there was a 310-vote “swing” after a recount, which he called “deplorable.”
“Brian, I hope you’ll investigate this,” he told Chirichiello.
Cardon said he was at the recount, in which Chirichiello gained nine votes, Katsakiores lost three, Flattes picked up 23 and Prudhomme-O’Brien gained 21.
“These results,” he said, “Are way out of line. I hope we get this straightened out.” He was also critical of the final moments of the election, when the results were being read, comparing it to “a gong show.”
“It is a stunning difference,” Prudhomme-O’Brien agreed.
Town Clerk Daniel Healy said the Associated Press called him at 11 p.m. “I told them Derry hadn’t sent its results,” he said. Derry didn’t have its final tally until midnight, and that’s when the numbers were released, Healy said.
Chirichiello said Till and her staff followed a practice Ives had set up years before, when she posted the unofficial results on a wall in the Municipal Center. He explained, “For years, people were complaining that they didn’t get the results quickly enough. Margie would put the tapes on the wall.” More and more people showed up to view the unofficial results, though the tapes were not taken down until the moderator made the official announcement.
This year, a reporter for the Associated Press took a camera-phone picture of the unofficial results, which were later posted on WMUR television, he said.