When It Doesn’t Add Up

While no one has documented a plot to manipulate results, voting systems deserve closer scrutiny.

However the final, official vote shakes out in the cliff-hanger Washington governor’s race, it still won’t be the true count. It will be the best available version of it.

Put aside any thoughts of widespread voter fraud or political conspiracy. As Secretary of State Sam Reed says, “Washington state is not Florida,” birthplace of the hanging chad and Jews for Buchanan. But Washington is like a lot of others states. Things go wrong on Election Day—machines fail, humans screw up. Every vote might count. But every vote isn’t necessarily counted.

“My fear is less a stolen election than good-faith human error causing a crisis,” says Michael Burton, an Ohio University expert on vote tallying. He lives in what was the Nov. 2 George Bush–John Kerry battleground state—you might have heard it went to Bush. The president won Ohio by a mere 137,000 votes or so, handing him the electoral votes he needed to win four freakin’ more years.

But VerifiedVoting.org, a watchdog group, says a computer in a single precinct in Youngstown, Ohio, came up with 25 million negative votes. That and other claims of ballot irregularities—vote suppression, miscounts, and delays, among them—have turned Ohio into the Florida of 2004 and revved up conspiratorial chat in the blogosphere, even though Kerry is not challenging the outcome. Bev Harris of Renton, for example, whose BlackBoxVoting.org group thinks vote-machine technology is vulnerable to hacking, is seeking reports from every county auditor in the U.S., hoping to document widespread irregularities.

Others, like The Nation‘s liberal chronicler, David Corn, urge calm. “This may be the beginning of a case; it is not a case in itself,” Corn writes of Ohio, adding that rigged elections are conceivable but the problem at hand is systemic: The voting process “ought to be so solid that no one would have cause to even wonder whether an election has been stolen.” Bravo to that, says Burton: “Florida alerted us to problems elections officials have known all along: Technology affects votes.”

It affected them not only in Ohio and Florida but in Washington. A review shows that glitches and other Nov. 2 problems might have shaped thousands of votes across the state.

Some registered voters reported receiving multiple ballots, due to election workers’ addressing errors. In an untold number of cases, completed absentee ballots were returned to voters because postal machines were reading a voter’s return address as the recipient’s address. (The U.S. Postal Service tried to redirect them when the errors were discovered.) In Olympia, an elections worker pressed the wrong button, and a vote-counting machine failed to record the number of ballots cast in Thurston County precincts. Though officials say no votes were lost, 81,000 had to be recounted. King County was overwhelmed by new voter registrations and sent out some of its absentee ballots after the state-designated deadline. In Snohomish County, first in the state to adopt new touch-screen voting, officials apparently solved the September primary breakdown of dozens of machines that had jammed. But on Nov. 2, voters reported that the touch screens were recording votes for the wrong candidate.

Elsewhere, votes cast faithfully were simply thrown out because they were wrongly marked, unreadable, or, in the case of some absentees, arrived unsigned.

How many of the 2.8 million statewide votes on Nov. 2 were lost, miscounted, wrongly cast, erased, or later rejected? Hundreds? Thousands? In fact, the gubernatorial race between Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi, in the final days of counting this week, varied by those numbers. Both parties scrapped for every last vote. The Democrats even sued King County to obtain names of provisional voters whose ballots were disqualified so they could contact them and document their qualifications. The Dems’ court victory Friday, Nov. 12, literally brought state party Chair Paul Berendt to tears. But Republicans filed their own legal action Tuesday, Nov. 16, challenging the prudence of allowing Democratic volunteers to bring the paperwork of disqualified provisional voters to the elections office. Claimed state GOP Chair Chris Vance: “The potential for fraud is obvious.”

Voters generally assume their ballots are tabulated, and done so accurately, says Jim Adler, founder and CEO of VoteHere, the Bellevue company that produces new voter verification and election-audit technology. But, in fact, “You walk away, and you hope for the best,” he says. Adler recalls seeing votes stacked up on a malfunctioning scanning machine at his King County precinct. People had simply left their ballots and walked out. “We have some idea our vote is recorded,” Adler says, “but we have no idea if it was counted.”

He points out that what are generally regarded as conspiracies and fraud can also be explained as human error—albeit intent is still an issue. Writer Greg Palast has documented Republican-driven election tampering in Florida in 2000 but has cited mainly vote spoilage—ballots from either side that might have not been counted—as the flaw in Ohio and elsewhere. “In Florida 2000,” says VoteHere’s Adler, “the biggest problem was the ambiguity of what was a true vote”— humans trying to decide the meaning of a dimpled if not pregnant chad on a punch card. A high-tech voter e-machine with a receipt is light years ahead of paper ballots and punch-card voting, he thinks. “This technology exists. We have it, others have it. It’s just a matter of jurisdictions using it.”

Burton, the Ohio University prof, helped conduct an Election Day voter survey in Las Vegas. Nevada is the only state to use voter-verified paper ballot printers that issue receipts showing, in code, how a person voted and allowing subsequent online verification that the vote was counted. More than 81 percent of 362 Nevada voters said they favored the ATM-style receipt to take home with them, Burton says. Thirty percent also said they’d use it to check their vote on the Web. “As unhealthy as Florida 2000 was, it does have the effect to bring change,” says Burton. “We weren’t thinking about this before. I expect we’re going to see a more robust debate.”