Something's rotten in the state of Denmark

Thursday, November 25, 2004

New Hampshire recount update

While most of the eyes of those who follow irregularities have been trained on Ohio and Florida, Ralph Nader has been focused on New Hampshire, where he raised funds to pay for recounts in a few wards in the Granite State that seemed to experience anomalous turn-outs in support of Bush and which also utilized electronic voting systems to tabulate optical scan ballots.

A New Hampshire recount -- in a state which Kerry won, and a state where a reversal of electoral votes would make no impact on the Presidential election -- was about verifying the integrity of the technology we are quickly employing in the mechanics of our democracy.

Russ Baker reports in the Nation on the progress so far in Concord. Baker describes the recount as focusing 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."

The results so far? They would, as Baker notes, "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."

In the two wards where official recounts were posted, the vote totals hardly changed at all. In 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.

Baker commends the recount as an exercise which reveals both what's good about our voting system and what needs to be fixed.

His piece also includes descriptions like this, a rare scene of Republicans and Democrats working together:

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.

Baker says that New Hampshire has important lessons to offer:

- New Hampshire refuses to use any technology that doesn't leave a paper trail, eschewing the black box touch-screens that -- I didn't realize this -- record the votes of 29% of Americans. Every New Hampshire voter fills out a paper ballot, which is then counted with optican scanners. "Transparency is the only way to go," Baker says. This means that as long as a candidate can afford to pay for a recount, the citizens of New Hampshire can be confident that their votes will be properly counted. Florida citizens can't have the same confidence in the integrity of their system, given how many counties use the touch-screen technology down there.

- This has affirmed the role thirty parties can play. "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."

New Hampshire isn't without its problems -- the straight-GOP ticket has always been listed first on the ballot, and "numerous studies have found that ballot sequence determines preference in enough cases to make a decisive difference, especially in close races." And even having the "Straight-vote system" -- where in voting "Straight Democratic," all unmarked specific races are assigned to that party's candidate -- creates problems, as all unmarked spaces are assumed to be votes for the favored party. After marking "Straight GOP," if you try to vote for a Democrat elsewhere on the ballot, it doesn't register.

But the real question remaining: if the recount isn't, so far, showing any problems with the technology, then why did Bush get suspiciously high amounts of votes in urban Democratic precincts in New Hampshire?

Russ Baker's explanation: "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."

Besides, "in other precincts, Kerry did fairly well among moderate Republicans who couldn't stomach Bush but who were not especially socially conservative."

So is everything A-OK in New Hampshire? Not completely, no.

"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."