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Counted votes at the core of democracy
Sunday, February 06, 2005
ED PACKARD    Opinion   Birmingham News

The story that garnered attention was that Amendment 2 was not only dead, but also buried, having avoided resurrection by a recount. The story that did not garner much attention is what the recount revealed about election administration more generally.

As certified by the state canvassing board, the recount on Amendment 2 showed that the margin of defeat changed from 1,850 votes to 1,846. A change in the margin of only four votes out of a total of 1,380,750 votes, seems to be a marvelous achievement. This change of only four votes suggests great reliability in the way our system counts ballots.

However, when we look more closely at the total votes counted on Nov. 2, as compared to the recount, we see there was a net loss of total votes in the recount. While 1,380,750 votes were counted on Nov. 2, the recount results were based on counting 1,378,906 ballots, a net loss of 1,844 ballots. While a loss of nearly 2,000 ballots should be of interest in and of itself, the number 1,844 doesn't even tell the complete picture.

When looking at more detailed results, counties reported totals that reflect a wide array of lost and found votes. Individual counties lost as many as 656 "yes" votes, and found as many as 91. They also lost as many as 366 "no" votes, but found as many as 52. While some of the lost and found votes can be attributed to particular ballots not being counted the same way twice, thus shifting votes from "yes" to "no" and vice versa, the overall numbers suggest some additional dynamic at work. Statewide, the totals show a net loss of 920 "yes" votes and a net loss of 924 "no" votes. There was no zero-sum gain due to ballots being read differently at two different times.

Reports from the counties indicate that, in some cases, ballots just went missing. Whether the ballots were inadvertently destroyed or misplaced by poll workers or county officials is not clear.

In other instances, counties showed a gain in votes due to the way voters cast their ballots on Election Day. On Nov. 2, optical scan ballot tabulators did not pick up some people's votes due to the way the voter marked the ballot (e.g., didn't make a mark large enough to be detected) or due to the marking device used (e.g., used a type of pen with ink that was not as accurately detected by the ballot tabulator). When isolating the Amendment 2 ballot measure, these "undervoted" ballots were read by the tabulators as blank ballots, prompting review by polling officials. This review lead to the discovery of marks unread by the tabulators but which clearly indicated the voters' choices of "yes" or "no."

Due to these findings, this first statewide implementation of the automatic recount law is instructive in several ways.

First, it has shown us that the voting devices in Alabama appear to be accurate when used properly by voters and administered properly by election officials.

Second, we must not dismiss the fact that very few problems were exposed by the recount. Polling officials and county election officials overall do a good job in service to Alabama's voters.

However, third, the recount has shown that we need better training for polling officials. We should ensure that poll workers are well-trained on the laws and procedures applicable in their jurisdictions. They must be properly equipped to fulfill their dual roles as protectors of the integrity of the voting system and protectors of individual voting rights. For example, all poll workers must understand thoroughly the imperative to properly account for and secure all ballots, especially the marked ballots cast by voters, so that no ballots go missing. Even a small loss of ballots can have serious repercussions in close contests.

Fourth, we should ensure election officials have sufficient resources for voter education and outreach. We must provide better education to voters on the proper method of marking a ballot as well as the importance of using standard marking devices to ensure the ballot will be counted accurately. Again, poll worker training can be useful by providing the polling officials the skills and knowledge to manage the voting place effectively and provide proper guidance to voters. (Ideally, we would seek out new voting devices that remove the risk of nonstandard inks or marks that aren't picture perfect.)

Last, the recount has shown that a ballot tabulator is, simply, a device for tabulating ballots. As a computerized mechanism, the vote totals it produces will be only as good as the marks on the ballots, not to mention the condition, or very presence, of the ballots. We should remember that ballot tabulators, in the form of mechanical voting machines, were originally implemented to assist election officials in the counting of votes. As the populations in counties and cities grew larger, hand counting paper ballots grew tedious and time consuming.

We should never confuse the tool with the product itself. Ballot tabulators should not be the final arbiters of an election where reasonable questions have surfaced about the accuracy of the vote-casting or vote-counting processes.

Unfortunately, improved voting equipment, training and outreach costs money, and election administration tends to be underfunded at the state and local level. So many demands are competing for the same limited funding. While we will expend the funds necessary to hold an election, our state and counties do not have the dollars to spend, or perhaps the will to spend them, to make continuing improvements in election administration.

Admittedly, better funding, training and technology, as useful as they are, will not solve all problems. Therefore, our efforts should be focused on the basics. We should keep in mind that the electoral system is, at its simplest, a way to let people register choices and have those choices counted in a reliable way.

The opportunity to express these choices and have them counted is the foundation of legitimate government in a representative democracy. Everything we do in election administration should be geared toward ensuring the strength of that foundation. Ed Packard is an election official with the Alabama secretary of state's office. He is also the chairman of The League of Extraordinary Voters, a political committee working to improve elections in Alabama. The league's Web site is http://www.xvote.us. E-mail Packard at epackard@xvote.us.

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