Six months ago, Erin Hennessey, the former state senator from Littleton, took the job as deputy secretary of state for New Hampshire.
Since then, she’s been on the go, and last year traveled to municipalities across the state to help them prepare for the 2022 elections.
On Thursday, Hennessey spoke of her experience and what’s in store for 2023.
“What I’m learning so far is there’s no downtime,” she said. “Initially, when I started in June when I resigned my Senate seat, I went right into prepping for the primary and the general elections.”
When she wasn’t helping to proof ballots and get them out the door, Hennessey was assisting in the training of different town officials.
“Every election cycle we do training sessions to help them with updated laws and also just the laws in general because a lot of times there’s turnover with local elections officials,” said Hennessey. “We traveled around the state and did various online training programs.”
There’s always a new law that elections workers need to get up to speed on, she said.
For the Sept. 13 primary, Hennessey spent the day in Laconia Ward 6, which previously had an issue with a ballot-counting device that had not been emptied properly and had ballots in it from previous elections. The Laconia ward also had an issue with the counting of write-in ballots that had been done incorrectly.
“There were three locations in the state that had an issue in their previous election,” she said. “I was at one of the locations helping to monitor them to make sure that they didn’t repeat any of the infractions that the attorney general had written a report about.”
But with a new moderator and assistant moderator, the Ward 6 election went well and the new elections officials corrected all the previous problems, said Hennessey.
“Once the primary was over, there was again a lot of prepping for the general election with ballots and other election materials, and also with training,” she said.
For the Nov. 8 general election, Hennessey spent the day in Woodstock.
“They were one of three locations in the state that decided to try a new ballot counting device from VotingWorks,” she said.
For decades, the only ballot tabulator machine authorized by the New Hampshire secretary of state for municipalities has been the AccuVote machine, and it currently still is.
But those machines are being phased out by the vendor because the machines are aging and parts are hard to come by.
The New Hampshire Ballot Law Commission had authorized the VotingWorks pilot program for a few different locations, in Woodstock, Ashland, and Newington.
Hennessey was in Woodstock to monitor how the process went and to ensure there were no issues with the device.
While Newington had an issue with the machine’s reader and wasn’t able to use it to complete the election there, the VotingWorks devices in Woodstock and Ashland went smoothly and completed the elections process in those towns.
Since becoming deputy, about 80 percent of Hennessey’s focus has been in the secretary of state’s elections division, doing outreach, education, informing elections officials of changes in laws, monitoring elections, and helping with any questions they have.
“There’s always calls every day from various elections officials,” she said.
But with the office having five divisions and the big elections not coming up again until 2024, Hennessey’s work is not all voting-related.
“Archives, vital records, corporations and the securities bureau are also part of the office, so I do a lot of work with those as well,” she said. “My day-to-day is different every day and changes depending on what’s going on.”
The new year will involve new duties for the second-in-charge at the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office.
“Now that the Legislature’s back in session, I’m working on a lot of legislation,” said Hennessey. “I’ll be going to all of the House and Senate committees any time they have a bill related to the secretary of state’s office.”
Hennessey is New Hampshire’s constitutional deputy secretary of state, who was appointed by New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan.
In early 2022, Scanlan, who had served as deputy secretary since 2002, replaced Bill Gardner, New Hampshire’s previous secretary of state who served for 46 years and made history as the nation’s longest-serving secretary.
The New Hampshire office has a senior deputy secretary of state, a part-time position that is a legislative and not constitutional role, as well as assistant secretaries of state in the different divisions.
“My accounting background has helped a lot with the other departments and with management and budgetary work,” said Hennessey. “And this is a budget year, so I was part of the process to work on the department’s budget … It’s been a very jump-in-the-deep-end process for me, especially with the elections piece, because I was never on the election law committee in either the House or Senate. It was a big learning curve I had to overcome, but it’s very interesting, too. I like learning new things. My previous experience had just been running for office. I had never been at an election for a whole day to see what went on and how much work goes into it beforehand, during, the night of, and after the polls close.”
She praised those at the local elections level who undertake significant education to be able to fulfill their duties, and said she has an increased appreciation of all the hard work that local elections officials take on, and their dedication to it.
She also thanked those who work in her office and who have been nice and helpful and answered her questions, making for an easy transition into the job.
The secretary of state’s office is housed in the New Hampshire statehouse in Concord.
Hennessey, who served three terms as a state representative before being elected to a first state senate term, is known to many in the statehouse.
“I see old friends stop in the office all the time, from the House and Senate,” she said. “It’s great to see some new faces come into the statehouse from the North Country and to see the familiar faces from previous years, too. I get to see everyone I used to work with, but in a different role.”
Hennessey’s office is rich in history and includes what is called the red books, going back to the 1800s and chronicling elections across the state.
According to the office’s archives division, Hennessey is New Hampshire’s second female deputy secretary of state. (To date, there has never been a female secretary of state).
“1933 was the last time there was a female deputy secretary of state,” she said. “Her name was Mary Jenkins, from Concord. That was 90 years ago. Her book is sitting on the shelf in my office with her name signed in it.”
Looking at another part of the state’s history, for more than 100 years New Hampshire has held the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
Recently, there’s been a push among some to have South Carolina hold the first primary.
Hennessey, though, said New Hampshire’s tradition will continue.
“The primary is here,” she said. “It’s our state law, RSA 653:9, and we will have it at least seven days prior to any similar election. The secretary has flexibility as to when he has to set that. Fortunately, we have great election workers who can adjust when that date comes out, and do so very rapidly.”
For residents wanting to pay a visit to the secretary of state’s office, they are always welcome, said Hennessey.
“I think people don’t realize how open the statehouse is and the secretary of state’s office is,” said Hennessey. “Our doors are open, and if you’re ever around, come on in and say hello.”