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Yesterday, judges in New York state were hearing calls for hand recount, while elsewhere other vote counts were being factored into the totals, and on the other side of the Atlantic, the same question “where are the election results?” was getting very serious. In the Ivory Coast, like in some places in the U.S., there is a very close election that still isn’t decided. There, it’s gotten serious, as the military closed off all points of entry into the country as a security measure related to unrest about the close election and lack of a winner.

Such distrust and unrest, we are lucky to have avoided here; despite the relatively low levels of trust in U.S. electoral processes (less than half of eligible people vote, and of voters polled in years past a third to a half were negative or neutral), we are content to let courts and the election finalization process wind on for weeks. OK, so maybe not content, maybe extremely irate and litigious in some cases, but not burning cars in streets.

That’s why I think it is particularly important that Americans better understand the election finalization process — which of course like almost everything in U.S. elections varies by state or even locality. But the news from Queens NY (New York Times, “A Month After Elections, 200,000 Votes Found”) though it sounds awful in headline, is actually enormously instructive — especially about our hunger for instant results.

It’s not awful; it’s complicated. As the news story outlines, there is a complicated process on election night, with lots of room for human error after a 16 hour day. The finalization process is conducted over days or weeks to aggregate vote data and produce election results carefully, catching errors, though usually not changing preliminary election-night results. As Douglas A. Kellner, co-chairman of the State Board of Elections, said:

The unofficial election night returns reported by the press always have huge discrepancies — which is why neither the candidates or the election officials ever rely on them.

That’s particularly true as NY has moved to paper optical scan voting from lever machines, and the finalization process has changed. But in the old days, it was possible to misplace one or a few lever machine’s worth of vote totals with human errors in the paper process of reading dials, writing numbers on reporting form sheets, transporting the sheets, etc. Then, add to that the computer factor for human error, and you get your 80,000 vote variance in Queens.

Bottom line — when an election is close, of course we want the accurate answer, and getting it right takes time. Using computerized voting systems certainly helps with getting quicker answers for contests that aren’t close and won’t change in the final count. And certainly they can help by enabling audits and recounts that lever machines could not. But for close calls, it’s back to elbow grease and getting out the i-dotters and t-crossers — and being thankful for their efforts.

– EJS

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