09 November 2007

Recanvass Madness

So that ballots have been cast, the votes are in, the celebrations and the disappointments come and gone... then comes the recanvass. With at least a dozen towns still counting ballots, there is a curious absence of information about this process as it continues in the mainstream media.

New Machines
Before the enactment of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (Public Law 107-252), each state in the Union had implemented their own method of balloting. Some states have been using optical scan balloting for years, with the State of Oklahoma adopting the technology in 1991. Some states, most famously Florida, used a punch card system. Other states, like Connecticut, used the lever voting machines that had been in use for decades.
The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) mandated that states swap out their punch card and lever voting machines for shiny new optical scan systems and then gave states the money to make the switch happen. The Secretary of the State's office rolled out the machines slowly, placing 25 around the state in 2006 for the federal elections. Of those, 13 got caught in the 2nd District Recanvass last year.

The Second District Experience
In that recount, the process was fairly straightforward. The election officials took the ballots out of the machine, got a new machine, and then fed them back into the new machine - that was it. They treated the absentee ballots the same way they always had. The results generally found to be very good - optical scan towns generally had some swing; +1 for Simmons here, -1 for Courtney there, on it went. The biggest discrepancy found was actually on a lever machine in Lebanon, where an election official mistook a 2 for a 3. When it was taken away, it reduced Joe Courtney's total by 100 votes. On Election Night, the Simmons campaign was down by 171 votes. At the end of the recanvass, Rob Simmons was down 83 votes, meaning that the other changes across 64 towns and 242,000 ballots amounted to a swing of 12 votes.

The Dream and the Nightmare
It was thus that Susan Bysiewicz was out in Bushnell Park earlier this week, smashing away at an old lever machine like it had offended her. Connecticut voters went to the polls to cast ballots for everything from Mayor to Constable, bond questions, and more. In most towns, people voted, the votes were counted, one side cheered, the other cried, and everyone went home. But in a handful of towns - Enfield, Manchester, Middlefield, East Haven, Bethlehem, Orange, Farmington, Southington, Brookfield, and others - the close nature of the votes triggered automatic recount, as the difference between the winner and loser was less than 0.5% in difference between the two.

Most of the veterans of the 2006 campaign assumed that the recanvass procedure would proceed as the counts in 2006 did, with the re-feeding of ballots into the machines, a re-checking of the numbers, and a doublecheck of the math. But upon opening up the SotS Recanvass Procedure Manual, which became available on the SotS website literally Thursday morning, just hours before the first recanvass was to occur in Bethlehem, many readers were surprised to find that the guidelines now call for a Florida-style hand recount of every ballot cast. When inquiries were made to the Election Division, they indicated that the law gives the SotS the discretion to choose the manner in which the recanvass occurs, and in this case they have chosen to order the hand recounting (they didn't at all like it when you called it a "Florida-style hand recount" either, for the record).

The implications of this decision are far-reaching and, to this point, under-reported. Elections Officials, which typically is code for "little old ladies" will now be counting literally thousands of ballots by hand - nearly 10,000 ballots in Manchester with five columns under consideration, 6500 in Enfield with three columns, 3500 in Orange with a whopping seven columns - and trying to divine "voter intent" on every ballot. The process is, and will be incredibly tedious, and many aged eyes & weary hands will be entrusted with the fate of democracy. This is not a lazy smear of committed and honest public servants - it's a recognition of the inherent fallibility of human beings, regardless of their intentions.

Narrow Perspectives in a Wide Open World
The machines are "new" to Connecticut, but they aren't new to a lot of other places, and they work. Instead of introducing a whole host of potential for human error, why not have the machines do it? It isn't like the technology itself is unproven. Anyone that has sat for the SAT, LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, or other standardized test in the last decade (if not longer) knows that they work. It's the same technology that we entrust with our bank accounts, our grocery bills, and our overnight packages. It seems clear that the Secretary of the State's office is proving their investment was worthwhile by conceding to the lazy notion that a hand recount is "the only way to be sure" that the technology works. A little circumspection seems to logically arrive at a different answer.

So this weekend, as you unwind after a busy week, think of the men and women stuck in high school gyms, town halls, and senior centers, doing their best to preserve democracy; One. Vote. At. A. Time.


Adam J. Schmidt said...

That just sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. I never really understood why they were in such a rush to abandon the lever machines to begin with.

BlastFromGlast said...

The lever machines were abandoned because they were effectively outlawed by the, so called, Help America Vote Act - NY State is facing problems now because they have yet to replace the levers and may face a Federal take over of their elections.

Also, the recounts are part of protecting our voting integrity. The problem was that in the 2nd District recount last time, the ballots were never counted. Just putting them through machines again almost proves nothing. If we want the voters' intent to be meaningful we need to count the paper in close races. One downside of the lever machines is you could not really verify the totals matched voters' intent. Compared to the time, effort, and money voters, candidates, supporters, and election officials put into elections this is a small price to pay to have it be accurate.

Adam J. Schmidt said...

I always thought Congress was simply rushing to throw some money and technology around when it passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Clearly there were problems in 2000 that resulted in enormous political pressure to do something - but the problems weren't nationwide. In Florida the problems weren't even statewide.

Were there significant problems with the lever machines we'd been using? I realize they were quite dated, but I hadn't heard of a push to replace them prior to HAVA.

Anonymous said...

I voted in Manchester,CT at 7:10. The polls had been open for a little more than an hour and the felt marker I was given was already hard and left a very light inprint. I was given, somewhat reluctantly after I complained, a new marker but the official remarked what are we going to do if they all go dry? I responded "there's a Staples at the Mall"