The dirty secret(s) of vote counting

In college I followed our nationally ranked hockey team. With ringside seats at an ECAC semi-final game, we struck up a conversation with a referee, who frequently stood just in front of us on the ice.  For a long while it was a tie, and we learned from him that refs do no like tie games, with the pressure on every call in a sudden death overtime. Elections can get rougher than hockey, there are more and tougher calls in close contests – calls that can easily expose the little know vulnerabilities of our election system and the flaws in the promise to “count every vote”.

Some of those vulnerabilities are covered in an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee: Paul Mitchell: The dirty secret of vote counting <read>

If there’s one thing elections officials pray for, it’s wide margins on Election Day.

A clear and convincing election result allows final tallies to be announced. Winners receive congratulations, losers give concession speeches and everyone else returns to work.

But that’s not what’s happening this year.

In the state controller’s race, we find an incredibly close result that has changed leads repeatedly throughout the counting period. Republican Ashley Swearengin is solidly in first place, nearly guaranteed a spot in the runoff.

But the vote differential between second and fourth is a mere four-tenths of a percent, with hundreds of thousands of votes to count. This easily could go to a recount if the margins remain this narrow.
With the spotlight on and representatives of each campaign lurking over their shoulders, elections officials are engaged in the painstaking process of validating ballots mailed in during the last days of the election or dropped off at polling locations. They are reviewing tens of thousands of provisional ballots used by voters who couldn’t get regular ballots at their polling places.

California doesn’t have the infamous hanging-chad or butterfly ballot, but there are damaged ballots and signatures that don’t match. Ballots are dropped off in the wrong county or mailed in the wrong envelope. Voters show up the day after the election and try to hand in their absentee ballot. Piles of ballots are marked “too late” because the mail arrived after Election Day.

The issue of signatures not matching is becoming an increasingly important wrinkle as more voters cast ballots by mail. Elections officials are reviewing more than 400,000 signatures of the 2 million early absentee voters in the June 3 election who signed registration 25 years ago. Similarly, few new online registrants realize that the signature on their registration form is actually their DMV signature, which could also be decades old. If non-matches can’t be resolved before Election Day, those ballots are invalidated.

All that, more and less, could happen in Connecticut.

  • We do not routinely check signatures on absentee ballots. Would a court be receptive to a challenge based on checking and verifying signatures? Maybe not, but just the exposure of the lack of actual checking would decrease confidence in a close result.
  • Unlike several other states we do not require voters to sign in at polling places. That does preclude any checking and embarrassment. Yet, the absence of  the signature would leave many questions of error and fraud unanswerable.
  • Remember that close election for Governor in 2010? Many recall that there were hundreds of ballots not counted yet a citizen recount showed that they tended to confirm the winner. How many recall that the system never recognized those votes, never addressed the question? How many know that the number of voters signed in did not match the number of ballots by large margins in several districts?  In a really close election, checking those counts might expose a very soft underbelly – it has happened at least twice since, in other municipalities with little public concern.
  • We also must point out that most of these problems in California are all related to absentee ballots, in a state with a rising percentage of such ballots.  We will have a question on the ballot this November authorizing the General Assembly to provide the same for the Nutmeg State.



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