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Delaware vows to watch ballots after low vote count

July 15, 2004

Delaware officials are defending their 2000 election results despite initial alarm at discovering some voters were less likely to have their presidential votes register than were voters in ballot-troubled Florida.

"I was surprised that so many people chose not to vote," Delaware Election Commissioner Frank Calio said Thursday. "We now figure most of those people were more interested in the local races."

This month Delaware, at the request of Scripps Howard News Service, reported for the first time the number of ballots cast in the 2000 and 2002 general elections.

Analysis showed that 7,876 of the 220,871 ballots cast did not register a presidential vote in urban New Castle County, a so-called "undervote" of 3.6 percent. Two-thirds of Delaware's residents live in New Castle County.

"I find it difficult to understand the huge undervote in New Castle," Calio said two weeks ago when first notified of the numbers. "We need to find out what the problem is. We are not going to whitewash this."

The 2000 undervote was significantly lower in the rest of Delaware - just 1.3 percent in Kent County and 1.4 percent in Sussex County. Two years later, the undervote in the U.S. Senate race was less than 1 percent statewide and only 0.7 percent in New Castle County.

"New Castle County in 2000 does sound like some sort of anomaly," said California Institute of Technology Professor Michael Alvarez, who studied voting irregularities following Florida's problems. "Anytime we see anything that stands out from the baseline like this, we should pay attention to it."

Calio said he discussed New Castle's 2000 undervote with local election officials.

"I checked with the counties. I checked with state legislators. And I checked with some of the people who voted," Calio said. "There were no flaws with the machines. There were no complaints from the voters. Some people weren't happy with the (presidential) candidates, and I guess didn't vote."

Since 1996, Delaware voters have used electronic voting machines with a tally board that lights up as voters their candidates.

"We test our machines a lot. We are kind of test-crazy here," New Castle County Elections Director Elaine Manlove said. "We have complete confidence in our machines."

Manlove said the 3.6 percent undervote in 2000 "was probably the highest we've ever had." She said the undervote for major races like president, U.S. Senate or governor generally "runs in the 1 percent or 2 percent range."

Election experts warn there is no simple test to determine when votes are lost because of technical problems with voting machines. Florida's statewide undervote in 2000 was 2.9 percent, much of which was caused by easily damaged punch-card ballots or by poorly designed and confusing ballots.

"There is always a debate about how much (of an undervote) is too much," said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, which tracks election reforms. "Certainly, 3.6 percent is higher than you hear in many places."

Both Chapin and Alvarez said local and state officials should investigate when a county reports an undervote for president as large as New Castle's.

"This is a tricky question, of course," Alvarez said. "There are many factors. But New Castle does seem to be an interesting outlier. We'd expect it to have a much lower undervote."

Calio said his office will begin monitoring the rate of undervoting in future elections.

"I'll be taking a look at this in the future since, now, this has been brought to my attention," he said.

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