Chain-Of-Custody Education In Haddam

A tight Board of Education race in Haddam provides an example four understanding chain-of-custody and recounts vs. recanvasses.  Courant story: Dispute Over Recount In Haddam Board Of Education Race <read>

Republicans said they plan to call the secretary of the state’s office today to ask officials to investigate confusion about the vote for a seat on the board of eduction. Democrats, who say there is no confusion, called a meeting Tuesday evening to sort out the issue. A dozen Democrats and Republicans met, but left without reaching a consensus.

Democrats say the following occurred:

The unofficial vote count after the Nov. 3 election showed Republican Chester Harris beating Democratic incumbent Sabrina Houlton by one vote. Because of the slim margin, the town held a recount Nov. 10, which showed the same result.

The next day, when town offices were closed for Veterans Day, election head moderator Marge DeBold, a former Democratic first selectman, was reviewing the election information and found a clerical error. She noticed that next to Houlton’s name on the absentee vote count were four tally marks and the number “3.” DeBold said she realized that someone had miscounted the marks as three instead of four.

The next day, DeBold told Democratic Registrar Pat Hess what she had found. Hess authorized DeBold and Town Clerk Ann Huffstetler, also a Democrat, to open the sealed envelopes containing the ballots to review the tally sheets and to amend the recount.

Hess said Tuesday that she knew representatives from both parties needed to be present during all vote-counting procedures, but the GOP registrar could not attend that morning and they wanted to get the new tallies quickly to file the proper paperwork with the secretary of the state’s office. She said there was no intentional wrongdoing.

The additional vote for Houlton meant the race was a tie. State law mandates that the town must hold a runoff election between tied candidates. The election will be Tuesday.

Earlier Tuesday, GOP Town Chairman Kenneth Gronbach alleged that the three Democrats — DeBold, Hess and Huffstetler — had tampered with votes.

“This isn’t Afghanistan. This is the United States of America,” Gronbach said. “It’s a conspiracy. The vote was changed; sealed documents were opened and altered.”

By Tuesday evening, he said he wasn’t accusing anyone of fraud, but would file a complaint with the State Elections Enforcement Commission and would file an injunction to prevent Tuesday’s election. He said that the last legal step in the process was the initial recount, and that its result is the one that should count.

Houlton argued that the mistake needed to be fixed, adding, “If that’s what the voters really want, then the runoff will speak to that.”

Harris said the issue “is that the process was corrupted. When you go by yourselves, just you two, it gives the appearance of impropriety.”

We also viewed a news report on WFSB-TV last night covering a meeting of Haddam officials and  the actual hashmark sheet involved.

What can we learn from this?

  • The chain-of-custody is important and its enforcement is important
  • Every vote is important, counting every vote accurately, transparently, and credibly is critical to democracy
  • Recounts and recount laws are important

The chain-of-custody is important and its enforcement is important

The credibility of the election process is dependent on a strong chain-of-custody to protect the ballots and associated election materials so that recanvasses, recounts, and post-election audits will be accurate and trusted.   In Haddam we have a classic situation where the evidence of the election has been called into question.  There are two additional problems here.  First, even if there was no tampering with votes or hashmark sheets candidates and the public cannot trust the process, lose faith in their government, and have to settle for a new election.

A new election is a fine solution for an actual election tie, and would be a necessary remedy for a compromised election.  But it is not as good for a compromised election as performing the original election as intended.  A new election is costly to candidates and taxpayers.  Also it brings out a different group of voters and may or may not produce the same result as ab original election with integrity would have.

Unfortunately, in Connecticut, election laws, regulations, procedures and common sense are often not followed.  The Coaltion Post-Election Audit Reports have documented many lapses in procedures, including the chain-of-custody.   It is quite possible that in this case there was a violation of state law subject to enforcement, as the registrar points out “Hess said Tuesday that she knew representatives from both parties needed to be present during all vote-counting procedures”.  In our experience most violations of  the chain-of-custody are not discovered, not enforced, and not enforceable.  Part of the problem is that, in Connecticut, only laws are enforceable, leaving regulations and procedures unenforceable – our ballots are only protected by law for fouteen days after the election, such that violations of procedures and common sense observed during the post-election audits are not enforceable.

The actual problem goes much deeper than this incident and the law.  Common sense would imply that access to ballots should require at a minimum: access by two individuals with opposing interests, logging of all access, and systems to assure that violations of such access were prevented.  In many states counties run elections and hold ballots in vaults, covered by 24×7 survelence and guards etc.  In Connecticut, in most towns (according to Coalition surveys) either registrar has access to a key to ballot storage; in many towns any employee in the registrars’ office has such access; in others additional town employees including school janitors.  The seals used for ballots in Connecticut can be compromised in a matter of minutes or seconds – they are useful but do not protect the ballots sufficiently when they can be accessed by individuals for extended periods.

Two years ago, I asked a security expert if I was being too hard in expecting Connecticut to follow stronger chain-of-custody procedures.  He pointed out that officials should not want such open access as it would open them to potential questions of tampering – that they would be unable to refute.  Case in point Haddam, even though many will trust the word of the officials, there will always be a lingering doubt.

Every vote is important, counting every vote accurately, transparently, and credibly is critical to democracy.

Time to reiterate the importance of every vote, the accuracy of every registration, the work to make sure every voter has a full opportunity within the law to vote, counting every absentee vote, every qualified provisional ballot, military and overseas ballot.

Also making sure that every effort is expended to properly reject ballots and unqualified voters and votes.  To take reasonable steps to prevent fraud, such as avoiding internet voting, and penalizing fraud.

To voters:  Make sure you vote.  Carefully consider the risks of absentee voting or mail-in voting before you subject your vote to the added risk of fraud or error in such votes.

Recounts and recount laws are important.

I did not attend and can find no specific news reports of the Haddam ‘recount’, but unless it was unusual it likely conformed to the Connecticut close vote ‘recanvass’ law and procedures.  As we have pointed out in the past there is a huge difference between a recount as conducted in some other states and the ‘recanvass’ conducted in Connecticut.  <Our Comparison w/Minnesota>

Recanvasses may sufice to uncover significant transcription and arithmetic errors and a poorly tuned scanner.  But when it comes down to one or two ballots in a district or perhaps a handfull in a town recanvass procedures may not be accurate enough.  Here we have a one or zero ballot margin.  In the Haddam race, just like a recent recanvass we attended that was judged a tie, one ballot can make a difference.  One hashmark made under the wrong candidate.  One vote misspoken or misunderstood.  One apparent undervote that was actually a vote for a candidate.  One ballot with identifying markings, but missed – such ballots should not be counted in Connecticut.  One overvote not detected when counting ballots in multi-vote races.  Every part of the process should be verified by two people to avoid simple errors like an incorrect count of hasmarks, transcription, or addition errors.  The only reliable way we know is for mutiple officials to check every ballot on both sides, with candididate representatives watching; multiple officials checking every aspect including tallying. It is not a matter of official integrity or misconduct, it is to count with a level of precision equal to the closeness of the election.


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