WASHINGTON — It’s become as predictable as the foliage: When Election Day comes around in New Hampshire, people start whispering about the possibility of buses full of Massachusetts Democrats intent on voting illegally in the Granite State.
But unlike the glorious fall leaves, nobody ever produces evidence of the buses.
“It’s like the yeti or the abominable snowman. There are rumors of them. People claim to see their footprints, but they never see the snowman. There is no basis in fact,” said Thomas Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general.
Election specialists in both states, politicians who ran for office, and longtime political hands all concur: Widespread voting fraud in New Hampshire is a myth; no proof of it has been presented.
That doesn’t stop the tales of voter fraud from being spun, typically by exhausted campaign workers or embittered candidates sitting in Concord or Manchester bars playing games of “what if.” But now it’s coming straight from the White House, first with President Trump’s remarks to lawmakers last week that thousands of Massachusetts residents crossed the border to vote and then again over the weekend when his policy director, Stephen Miller, repeated the debunked claim on national television.
“I can tell you that this issue of busing voters into New Hampshire is widely known by anyone who’s worked in New Hampshire politics,” Miller said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Miller, who worked in the communications shop of Scott Brown’s 2014 Senate campaign for a few weeks, added: “It’s very real. It’s very serious.”
White House spokesmen ignored multiple requests for comment from the Globe, declining to provide any evidence of New Hampshire voter fraud.
Longtime New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner has dismissed the allegations, saying there is no proof.
But like every good conspiracy, the notion of New Hampshire voter fraud is born out of a kernel of reasonableness: The Granite State’s same-day registration makes the voting rules more permissive than most other states’ regulations. And the state has a flexible definition of residency.
New voters, the ones who show up for same-day registration, are supposed to provide some kind of proof that they live in the state, like a utility bill or a rental agreement. If voters can’t manage that, they must sign a document saying they live in the state — under penalty of perjury.
That leaves a gray area where many New Hampshirites, particularly Republicans, believe there have been isolated, one-off instances of voter fraud in their elections for years.
They point to Martha Fuller Clark, a New Hampshire Democrat who let out-of-state campaign workers use her address in order to vote. The state’s Democratic attorney general permitted the arrangement because the campaign workers were domiciled in the state when they voted.
“It started out as an argument, as ‘Could people do this?’ But nobody ever found a bus,” explained one Republican consultant who has worked on multiple New Hampshire campaigns but didn’t want to be quoted by name discussing the phantom buses. “I think that some people thought in theory it could be done.”
Former New Hampshire governor Judd Gregg, a Republican, offered his own voter-fraud theory, saying that he’s sure some of the thousands of volunteers who flock to New Hampshire every year probably do vote improperly in the state. But he doesn’t think they’ve ever changed the outcome of a race.
“I don’t think anybody ever got so upset about it that they felt they needed to call for an investigation,” said Gregg.
“We’re a pretty laissez-faire state.”
He started hearing about the busing rumor in 2008 when Barack Obama was running against John McCain and it was very specific: The buses were coming from Cambridge to New Hampshire. He said he’s never heard talk of voters from equally liberal neighboring Vermont.
“What colleges are there in Vermont?” he asked, apparently forgetting Middlebury College and the University of Vermont, among others. “People in Massachusetts are a lot more organized.”
Gregg redirected the conversation to a more strategic concern that Republicans in the state are focusing on: out-of-state college students taking advantage of the same-day election registration and voting.
“They don’t have a vested interest in the state,” he said.
In his view, Trump lost New Hampshire because of big Democratic returns in the college towns like Durham, not because of phantom buses.
But when one discusses illegally disrupting elections in New Hampshire, the Republicans are the ones who’ve gotten into the most trouble. Three GOP operatives in the state were found guilty of jamming phone lines during the 2002 Senate election to prevent Democrats from calling to get rides to the polls in five towns.
Hundreds of election attorneys for both parties volunteer on Election Day to monitor the polling places, and several Democrats interviewed by the Globe don’t recall any discussion of busing.
“The Republican operatives spent a lot of time indoors, they didn’t seem to be outside prowling around for buses,” said Ted Lothstein, a Concord Democrat who was a monitor in the past three election cycles.
“There were people with the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. There would have been plenty of opportunity for a witness to see one of these magic buses to appear from elsewhere. There is no evidence.”
The most recent prominent New Hampshire Republican to push the busing theory is Chris Sununu, who as a candidate for governor called into Howie Carr’s radio show shortly before last November’s election and predicted that Democrats would be “busing them in all over the place” to vote in the Granite State.
Sununu won the election and his tune has changed somewhat. “Is there specific evidence of voter fraud that I’m know of? There’s not, there’s not,” Sununu said on New Hampshire Public Radio’s “The Exchange.”
“We have been reaching out to the administration and basically saying if there’s real evidence, then yes, let’s keep that conversation going and let me understand, maybe they know something that we don’t. But is there clear evidence of voter fraud here? I don’t know of any.”
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker was also asked Monday about the possibility of fraud, but he ably ducked the question.
“I don’t know much about what goes on in New Hampshire,” Baker said.
The sheer number of buses needed to orchestrate effective fraud is worth considering. The buses used to shuttle volunteers to Massachusetts typically seat between 50 and 60 people, depending on the company.
Maggie Hassan would have needed at least 12 buses packed full of people voting for a Democratic ticket to have given her her winning margin in the Senate race over incumbent Kelly Ayotte.
Hillary Clinton would have needed to organize at least 50 buses to account for her margin over Trump.
Jeanne Shaheen, who beat Scott Brown in 2014, would have needed 264 buses.
“Who drove the buses?” asked William Galvin, the Massachusetts secretary of state, who does not believe the voter fraud theories. “Who owns the buses? Where did the buses leave from? Who paid to rent the buses? You give us some specifics and we’ll investigate it.”