New Hampshire Recount, Act One

New Hampshire Recount, Act One

Old-fashioned paper ballots are the best guarantee of the democratic process.


Concord, NH

The early results are trickling in on the nation’s first ballot recount of the 2004 presidential election, which commenced November 18 in New Hampshire. John Kerry, for one, probably won’t sit bolt upright at the news that three extra votes were found for him thus far in a state he won anyway. But if nothing else, the process confirms that in an age of technological overkill, old-fashioned paper ballots are still the best guarantee of the integrity of the democratic process.

The focus in New Hampshire is on precincts where results went strikingly against current statewide trends and past localized ones: a kind of under-the-hood check of the controversial private-sector machinery that increasingly drives the ballot-counting process and has drawn the skeptical scrutiny of activists throughout the country.

Final results won’t be known until those stolid-paced Granite State folks complete their task sometime after Thanksgiving.

But so far, in the two precincts, or “wards,” where official recounts were posted, the vote totals hardly changed at all. In the town of Litchfield, both Bush and Kerry gained three votes–precious little out of more than 5,000 ballots cast. In Manchester’s Ward 7, with a similar number of voters, Bush’s total remained the same, while Kerry picked up three.

Clearly, New Hampshire plays no role in the crucial Electoral College math in which we’re all interested. Hence, verifying the integrity of the mechanism is the entire game here. The recount came about at the behest of Ida Briggs, a Michigan computer programmer and database designer whose number-crunching led her to doubt the trustworthiness of new voting and counting technologies. She zeroed in on bite-sized New Hampshire, and principally on certain Democratic-inclined precincts that trended more conservative while a conservative state trended more liberal. The suspect precincts, she noted, overwhelmingly relied on ballot-reading technology from Diebold Inc.–the GOP-friendly Ohio company and ten-ton gorilla of the elections business. Her analysis convinced the Nader campaign to call for a recount, a purely civic-minded venture since the quixotic Nader, of course, would not benefit.

If the results from the two completed precincts are mirrored in the remaining targeted ones (another nine out of 126 total statewide), it may reassure the most skeptical among us that Diebold’s much-criticized optical-scanning machines (35 percent of votes nationally are now opscan-counted) do a surprisingly good job of reading hand-marked ballots.

But even if Diebold receives a passing mark, the Concord recount, perhaps the first of several in statehouses nationwide (all-important election-decider Ohio may be reviewed in December), could by no means be considered a waste of time and resources. Irrespective of the outcome, the exercise itself teaches us important things about the benefits of openness in the pursuit of functioning democracy. It reveals a lot about what’s good about our voting system–and offers hints of what needs to be fixed, which is plenty.

While playing bystander at a recount can be excruciatingly boring, it has its moments. For one thing, there’s something reassuring about watching a trio of Democratic, Republican and Naderite observers intensely scrutinizing document after document and broadly agreeing with each other on the intentions of each voter. In addition, the monotonous seriousness of the undertaking is frequently relieved by evidence of the determined individuality of the American voter–the write-in votes for “God,” the straight-ticket Republican voter who deviated only to write in Ralph Nader’s name and the editorialist who left Bush’s name alone but pointedly and emphatically crossed out Cheney’s. Punctuating the hushed, at times reverent atmosphere of the counting hall in a nondescript corner room in New Hampshire’s low-security Legislative Office Building is the occasional ejaculation “Object!” by an official observer who has found fault with an incorrectly or ambiguously marked ballot. The fate of these challenged documents is generally left to the seasoned eye of the secretary of state, in this case New Hampshire’s William Gardner, a fourteen-term Democrat who is widely respected and appears studiously fair. Of course, the objectivity of the process will depend greatly on local conditions. In Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004, many questioned the neutrality of election officials who were also self-avowed partisans.

New Hampshire may not be typical of other states, in part because it is so small, but it has some important lessons to offer:

§ Transparency is the only way to go. New Hampshire resolutely refuses to use any ballot-counting technology that does not leave a paper trail; it will not use the “black box” touch-screens that have been installed throughout the country, and now record the votes of 29 percent of Americans. Thus every New Hampshire voter fills out a paper ballot. Only the counting mechanism varies–some localities use optical scanners from Diebold or another vendor, and others stick with hand counts. This means that as long as a candidate can be found to request a recount and someone can be found to pay for it, the citizens of New Hampshire can be fairly sure that their votes will be properly counted.

§ Third parties do play honest broker. Only a candidate can ask for a recall. With Bush having no incentive to do so, and Kerry having no interest in contesting the results in a state he won, there would be no advocate for accountability if Ralph Nader had not been in the race.

§ We should be deluged with statistics, but we aren’t. New Hampshire is a distinct rarity, in that it posts election totals, right down to the precinct level, on the Internet–for anyone to see.

But New Hampshire is far from infallible. For one thing, thanks to a complicated formula reflecting Republicans’ majority-party status, the GOP has in recent years always been listed first on the ballot. Hence, general election ballot choices come in the following order: -Straight-ticket Republican
-Straight-ticket Democratic
-Presidential race, Republican candidate
-Presidential race, Democratic candidate
-Statewide race, Republican candidate
-Statewide race, Democratic candidate
-Local race, Republican candidates (in multimember districts, in alphabetical order)
-Local race, Democratic candidates (in multimember districts, in alphabetical order)

Numerous studies have found that ballot sequence determines preference in enough cases to make a decisive difference, especially in close races. And as Paul Twomey, a Democratic activist and attorney handling a case about ballot order, put it to me, “A Democratic [state representative] candidate whose name starts with a W doesn’t have a chance in hell of getting elected.” That’s an exaggeration, but only just. Randomly assigning ballot slots would certainly help eliminate this bias.

The straight-vote system is itself deeply problematical. When a person marks the “Straight Republican” or “Straight Democratic” option, all unmarked specific races are assigned to that party’s candidate. Even if a voter marks a “straight” ticket and then marks several races for the opposing party’s candidate, all unmarked spaces are assumed to be votes for the favored party. Officials I spoke to in New Hampshire conceded that, in all likelihood, many of those choosing the straight-ticket option hadn’t read or properly absorbed the instructions, and so wrongly assumed they were merely indicating their party affiliation or registration rather than their intention to give all their votes to one party.

** When the results from the first two precincts did not bear out Ida Briggs’s theory that something was amiss, Briggs wasn’t the only bewildered party. Democrats and Naderites wondered how, in a state where Kerry did well, urban Democrats could have favored Bush–especially since these anomalous voters tended to have voted on Diebold equipment.

The best guess I heard was that although many of those urban Bush voters were Democrats, they were socially conservative, and many were Catholics who had been targeted by implicitly anti-Kerry letters from their bishop and leafleting campaigns in church parking lots. And, said State Senator Lou D’Allesandro, a Democrat from Manchester, despite the vaunted Democratic get-out-the-vote effort, the Republicans did a better job of getting out their base–even in urban areas, and even including sympathetic Democrats. Another factor was that some wards had substantial population growth since the last presidential election, and as long as the new residents were an unknown factor, it didn’t make sense to assume anything about them. In other precincts, Kerry did fairly well among moderate Republicans who couldn’t stomach Bush but who were not especially socially conservative.

Nonetheless, when the counters return after Thanksgiving, they’ll still have some technical problems to resolve. The hand count of a third precinct showed roughly 100 fewer presidential votes than the optical-scan machines had, and will likely have to be recounted yet again. And in a fourth one, a local Republican candidate being recounted was awarded 105 more votes than he had before. Was the problem Diebold or somebody in the counting room? The answer will soon be clear.

What’s already evident is this: As a country, we’ve never come to terms with the fact that the entire voting and tabulation process, electronic or otherwise, is rife with potential errors, many of them emanating from human beings, whether programmers or counters. Or that, imperfect and “inefficient” as they may be, hand-marked paper ballots offer the best possibility of finding those errors. And rebuilding trust in the process.

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