What can we learn from a jurisdiction in NY that hand-counts every vote?

I recently attended a presentation by Columbia County, NY, Election Commissioner Vivian Martin on the post-election audit/recount performed after every election.  It should be of interest to every citizen concerned with trust in elections and every election official: “You Can’t Count Paper Ballots”  Want to bet? <presentation>

After every election (using optical scanners) they count every ballot a second time by hand.  Here are some of the high points:

  • They do more than just count the ballots and votes.  They day after the election they review the paperwork and checkin lists.
  • In the next week or so they count every vote and adjudicate voters’ intent.  They do this before certification, so that they can certify the actual results with voters’ intent.
  • They have a simple, yet strong chain-of-custody.  Two people transport the ballots.  There are two locks with opposing officials holding the keys.  Every step is well documented.
  • They recruit citizens to participate in the process, who learn about elections and enjoy the process and pay.
  • It costs a “whooping” 1% of their budget. In our opinion, a small price to pay for insuring democracy.
  • They demonstrate that they can count accurately with the rigorous 4-person hashmark methods they use. (Very similar to the methods used in Connecticut for the Bridgeport Citizen Recount)
  • They are careful that any questions posed by counters are heard by leaders of both parties simultaneously and answers are determined jointly.
  • They do not count uncontested races.  Other races where they see lopsided, expected results, the losing party official gets consent from their party or candidate not to count a race.

What can we learn in Connecticut, “The Land of Steady Habits?”.

  • Most of all we can learn that what we do and think in Connecticut is not the only way possible.  (It is human nature to assume that the way we have always done it is the only way;  human nature to point to other state practices to justify what we want to change, yet ignore them when we don’t.)
  • No municipality could do this counting, exactly the same way legally in Connecticut.  It is questionable that it would be legal to open and count ballots by the choice of election officials at any time.  Right after the election we have the potential for a recanvass.  It would likely be questioned if  similar methods were used for recanvasses, rather than the Secretary of the State procedures for rescanning.
  • We could use these methods for performing manual audits.  Where they have been used, the Citizen Audit has shown that accuracy has been much better than when the more common, in Connecticut, ad-hoc and two-person teams have been used..
  • Perhaps, if Connecticut officials used better methods and learned from Columbia County, they would stop believing and arguing that “People cannot count votes accurately”.
  • For a low cost, Connecticut could have a credible and trustworthy chain-of-custody.
  • We could actually verifiably check our checkins and ballot counts.

We are not necessarily convinced that we need to go as far as Columbia County.  Yet, Connecticut needs a much stronger, more comprehensive, transparent audit; we need a stronger more transparent chain-of-custody; a more uniform, higher quality recanvass.  There is no reason, other than “we have always done it this way”, for our current post-election schedule.  We could perform rigorous automatic recounts rather than recanvasses; we need more to declare and perform recounts/recanvasses. We could emulate other states and perform audits shortly after the election, delaying rigorous/adversarial recounts to later and providing weeks for their completion.



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