Stuart Comstock-Gay is executive director of the National Voting Rights Institute, and director of the Democracy Program at Demos: A Network of Ideas and Action.
This election season has been marked by a parade of disturbing but welcome reports about voting problems. Voting machines with questionable security, unverifiable vote counting, poorly trained election workers (and too few of them), provisional ballots that may or may not be counted, restrictive voter ID requirements, equipment and ballot shortages leading to long lines—the list goes on. The questions and problems in our election processes are real. Close races combined with an overload on new systems and rules have stretched our election systems to their limits. Any candidate who suffers a close loss on Tuesday will be well advised to consider a challenge.
This isn’t a question of sour grapes. There are simply too many potential snafus preventing all votes from being accurately counted. Recounts should be considered not just to ensure the most accurate vote count, but as a critical means of exposing problems with our electoral process, and to create a climate for continued reform and improvements.
The evidence in the Ohio presidential recount in 2004 was startling. Forget conspiracy theories—the veracity of Ohio’s vote count was, and is, doubtful due to widely documented problems on November 2. Polling places were short-staffed, machines and ballots were in short supply, provisional ballots went uncounted by the tens of thousands and the e-machines used that year made recounts impossible. And many of those conditions exist across the country this year.
Let’s start with the poll-worker problem. There are generally too few workers, they are underpaid and most have little-to-no training on the new machines—yet they are the gears and wheels that are supposed to make the election machine run. Most are capable and mean well, but managing elections has become a complex task. With the increase in electronic voting machines, and constantly changing rules, the job now requires technical acumen and knowledge of the law. A survey of workers at polling sites in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, after their 2006 primary showed that 57 percent did not feel they had enough hands-on practice using the county’s voting machines prior to the election; 53 percent thought their training’s coverage of election laws and administration was inadequate. In a close race, lack of training could make a big difference. A recount can help ensure that the rules are interpreted fairly.
Then there’s the “placebo ballot issue.” In 2006, as in 2004, millions of voters will be shunted aside and handed provisional ballots. The 2002 Help America Vote Act requires that voters whose registration cannot be found at the polling place should be directed to vote on provisional ballots, to be verified later by election officials. Problem is, in the crush of counting regular ballots, or for whatever poor reasons, many votes end virtually in the trash can. In the 2004 elections, 23 states counted less than 50 percent of all provisional ballots cast. Nationally, more than one in three of the 2 million cast went uncounted. The claim is that these are “fail safe” votes. Voters walk away thinking they cast a ballot. More than 650,000 voters in 2004 got the Election Day sugar pill. In a tight race (or with these numbers, not so tight), provisional ballots could make the difference.
There is one gap in this call for a recount: electronic voting. Some 40 percent of registered voters around the country will cast their votes on Tuesday using touch-screen voting machines. Studies from Princeton University and the Brennan Center for Justice show how easily hackers can infect and disrupt electronic voting systems.
But the rubber really hits the road when we witness one or more recount fights in jurisdictions using paperless touch screen machines. How do you conduct a recount with such machines? Short answer: you don’t. In the November 2004 election in Ohio, many voters in electronic voting machine precincts complained of the “jumping screen” problem: when they pressed “John F. Kerry” as their selection for President, the screen flashed up “George W. Bush.” During the recount fight following that election, there was no way, in the jurisdictions in Ohio that used these machines, to count the votes again. It’s possible nothing went wrong. We don’t have to believe there was any conspiracy. But when we cannot engage in conducting a meaningful recount, we simply cannot ensure that our votes are being properly counted.
This is why Congress and the states must make it a priority before the 2008 election to ensure that any vote that is cast can be recounted. Hand-recorded ballots provide that promise now. Touch screens do not.
Nonetheless, candidates should press forward with recounts where their races are close. And when recounts are called for, none should call it poor sportsmanship. Rather, it’s a civic duty. It’s a core concept that the person who receives the most votes will win the seat. In this highly competitive year, with so many changes, the counts need to be confirmed. Moreover, recounts will help us highlight problems and press for future changes to ensure that all votes are counted—and are recountable. And, between the recounts of 2006 and the General Election of 2008, we need to continue to reform and modernize our election systems, so that we can all be sure the vote count reflects the voters’ will.