This is truly the year of the amateur. It was mostly the unfamous and unsung who organized the voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, started and ran the grassroots (if well-funded) 527 committees like MoveOn.org, wrote the blogs and conceived the websites that did what the traditional media seldom did–such as probing deeply into Bush’s personal history, including his military service. And it is ordinary people who are now leading the way in scrutinizing newfangled, secretive voting systems, seeking to insure that a handful of corporations don’t, accidentally or deliberately, undermine electoral democracy.
Tomorrow the first recount begins–in New Hampshire, of all places, a state George Bush didn’t even win. But in those areas where he did well, sometimes the numbers look decidedly odd. In this case, the person who got the ball rolling was one Ida Briggs, a longtime Michigan software designer and database developer who did a statistical analysis of some election results, and found them perplexing enough to trigger concerns in her mind about the efficacy of the electronic vote tabulation system used.
What she found were striking anomalies–mostly in precincts using paper ballots that were then input via the optical scanning machines manufactured by the controversial vendor Diebold, of North Canton, Ohio. In general, according to Briggs, the “Diebold precincts” showed larger and more frequent deviations from expected voting trends than precincts relying strictly on hand counts, and even than those using an optical-scan counting system from another manufacturer. Creating trend patterns by looking at the 2000 and 2004 elections, she found rural, typically conservative precincts that hand-counted ballots as voting more for Kerry than they did for Gore, while larger, urban precincts using Diebold’s AccuVote machines often did the opposite. Of the precincts where Kerry did less well than expected, according to Briggs, 73 percent used optical-scan technology and 62 percent used Diebold machines. Fully 92 percent of all out-of-trend votes were optically scanned. New Hampshire has 301 precincts; 126 of them use Diebold’s AccuVote technology.
Referring to the recount advocates, a Diebold spokesman told the Associated Press, “I think they’re rushing to judgment.”
Briggs became interested in the numbers when, shortly after the election, she saw a study published on the web about statistical anomalies in nonswing states. New Hampshire caught her attention because of the sizable–15 percent–differential between early exit polls and results. It was easy to study, because the state made its data available online. And because New Hampshire was a state Kerry won, no one could claim that the goal of a recount there was to change the election results.
In the era of contracted-out services, companies like Diebold are given unusual amounts of liberty to be self-policing. The problems emerge later, if at all. Diebold has faced intense scrutiny and criticism over malfunctions in its touch-screen voting machines, but it steadfastly insists that its optical scanners have proven reliable during years of use. Diebold continues to be one of several corporations with vast power over the levers of democracy.