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Many places count votes very well, study reveals
Sunday, October 03, 2004
Thomas Hargrove
Despite the many election-counting flaws discovered in Florida four years ago, democracy runs smoothly in hundreds of counties and major cities.

A study of 2000 election returns by Scripps Howard News Service found that errors are least likely when state and local election officials conscientiously check for missing votes in every election.

Electoral excellence can be found in some unexpected corners of America. Few ballots are miscounted in Baltimore’s gritty inner city, where folks are more likely to be impoverished than college-educated. Even fewer votes go missing in the bayous of Louisiana, where political corruption is legendary.

Florida drew worldwide attention four years ago when 178,145 ballots were not counted in the presidential race, mostly because of poor ballot design and disputed punch-card votes. Across the country in the 2000 election, more than 1.6 million reported ballots did not register a vote for president.

But these problems are hardly universal. In the Scripps Howard study of the nation’s 2,233 counties reporting complete election data, there were 469 counties where more than 99 percent of ballots cast four years ago registered a vote for president.

Fourteen of these counties achieved this level of accuracy using much-criticized punch-card ballots.

‘‘That’s neat!" said Ted Selker, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology elections scholar and co-director of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project. ‘‘I think supervision is the whole story here. People matter."

DeForest Soaries, chairman of the new U.S. Election Assistance Commission created by Congress to solve Florida-style voting problems, said too little attention has been given to successful election administration. ‘‘Up until now, we’ve been compelled to recite a litany of voting failures in this country. But when you have a problem, the way to fix it is by studying success," Soaries said.

Many state and local election officials who delivered unusually precise ballot counts in the last presidential election said they never assume machines are infallible and never stop looking for missing votes. The lowest statewide error rate was delivered by Louisiana, where 99.4 percent of the nearly 1.8 million ballots recorded a vote for president. Experts say results under 98 percent should be examined.

‘‘That does not surprise me. It was not an accident," said Fox McKeithen, Louisiana’s secretary of state. ‘‘We established a centralized voting procedure 50 years ago in which the state took over responsibility for voting. That was the result from some really heated elections during the Huey Long era. We had some horror stories back then."

Huey Long dominated Louisiana politics as governor and U.S. senator until his assassination in 1935. He became symbolic of Southern political corruption.

‘‘So all parties agreed after that that we needed a really reliable voting system, a single statewide system," McKeithen said. ‘‘We haven’t had hanging chads here for 40 years. We look for any falloff in voting routinely, and we generate statistics to make sure there isn’t something wrong with some machine somewhere."

Also producing a surprisingly low error rate was Baltimore, where 192,404 votes were counted out of 193,793 ballots cast four years ago, a so-called undervote of just 0.7 percent. Two-thirds of the city’s population are racial or ethnic minorities, and nearly a quarter live below the official poverty line.

As in Louisiana, Baltimore officials routinely compare the number of ballots cast against the number of votes counted.

‘‘Yes, we do check that," said Elections Director Barbara Jackson. ‘‘We know by the end of the election all of the percentages on that. And we try to get people to understand that they should vote for every office on the ballot. We don’t pressure people, but we do urge them to try to vote for everyone."

Elections scholars in recent months have been effusive in their praise of Baltimore’s low rate of undervoting.

‘‘They’ve done this because Baltimore is a well-run city," said Henry Brady, a professor of political science at the University of California-Berkeley. ‘‘There are a lot of officials who don’t care about residual vote (undervote) rates and just assume all of these people decided not to vote for anyone. But the people who have focused on residual votes have been able to lower the rate of undervoting."

More than 99.4 percent of the ballots registered a presidential vote in Seattle in 2000, one of the lowest rates of undervoting for any major urban area.

‘‘Certainly, we review the undercount," said Seattle’s elections superintendent, Bill Huennekens. ‘‘We are required by law to look at this. It is incumbent on election officials to review the overvote and undervote since it could mean that our tabulating equipment is askew or there are other anomalies."

Nationwide, about 98 percent of all ballots cast registered a vote for president four years ago, according to official election returns in 40 states that reported the number of ballots cast then. In these states, 83,214,517 ballots were cast and 81,550,810 votes for president reported. That means 1,663,707 ballots didn’t record a presidential vote.

Some people chose not to vote for president, caring only about other races and issues further down the ballot. But experts warn the falloff rate formed many alarming patterns that cannot be dismissed as mere nonvoting in the presidential race.

The Scripps Howard study found that only 97 percent of ballots cast on all punch-card machines recorded a vote for president. But the undervote was half that for ballots cast using newer electronic ‘‘touch screen" machines or optically scanned paper ballots.

The study found several commonly cited management techniques used by election officials in well-run counties and states. Among them:

• Routine county-by-county and even precinct-by-precinct analysis of the undervote, looking for unusual patterns or unexpected spikes in ballots not registering votes.

• Mandatory training, even for veteran poll workers, using ‘‘hands-on" experience in mock election booths set up weeks before Election Day.

• Unofficial ‘‘do not hire" lists of incompetent poll workers.

• Frequent mass mailings of voter guides before every major election, providing a sample ballot and complete instruction on how to use voting equipment.

Also, successful election officials often demonstrate almost brash confidence in their own competence.

‘‘When it comes to voting, it’s the people and not the equipment. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, ‘It’s the people, stupid!’ " said Bob Balink, clerk of El Paso County, Colo. His county counted 200,757 votes out of 201,134 ballots cast, for an undervote of just 0.2 percent. ‘‘If you only knew how much time we spend setting up logic routines to test our equipment. We know that every vote cast is counted, and we can prove it.

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