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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How Accurate Are Our Elections? (Hint: Very)

Posted by on Wed, Dec 5, 2012 at 4:53 PM

I was looking forward to the hand recount of the razor-close Senate race in Washington's 17th Legislative District, not because I expected Democrat Tim Probst to jump into the lead (he didn't) but because hand recounts are an opportunity to measure the accuracy and integrity of our ballot tabulation systems.

Out of 58,994 ballots cast, Republican incumbent Don Benton now leads Probst by a mere 74 votes, down a net four from the original tally. Probst picked up eight votes from the hand recount, Benton picked up four. According to Clark County Elections supervisor Tim Likness, all 12 of these new votes came from ballots "where the voter made very light marks and/or used a pencil to mark their ballot." These were ballots on which the optical scanners did not detect a vote.

"This is one of the reason for there being a manual ballot count when an election contest is very close," Likness explained via email. "The human eye did indeed identify these as valid votes even though our voting system could not."

To be clear, that's an adjustment of only 12 votes out 58,994 ballots cast: That's a 0.02 percent tabulation error rate. Hand recounts in legislative races are mandatory when the margin is less than 150 votes and 0.25 percent.

Nine additional ballots have been sent to the canvasing board that Likness says either contain marks that are "so light as to possibly not to be considered a vote," or on which voters changed their vote in a way where voter intent could not easily be determined. But it wouldn't be fair to categorize these as tabulation errors.

Every election season I hear conspiracy theories about elections fraud and crooked tabulation software. But on top of all the routine audits, these occasional hand recounts are the ultimate test of the accuracy and integrity of our ballot tabulation systems. And it's a test that no Washington election has ever failed.


Comments (10) RSS

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care bear 1
What are the audits like? Do they pick a certain number of ballots from certain races to recount by hand?
Posted by care bear on December 5, 2012 at 5:11 PM · Report this
so long as there is a paper trail... agreed, it probably works pretty well most of the time. The fraud concerns I have are with electronic voting where no permanent paper record is simultaneously created and confirmable by the voter.
Posted by myr on December 5, 2012 at 5:16 PM · Report this
sperifera 3
WaGOP: "We could probably get that down to 0.01% if you would just let us require photo ID's from the blacks and Mexicans"
Posted by sperifera on December 5, 2012 at 5:41 PM · Report this
Amen, Goldy.

As you're well aware, I've argued ad infinitum that hand recounts are more accurate than machine recounts. That's because of precisely what Mr. Likness pointed out -- humans are better at pattern recognition than machines. Those 12 ballots were marked, even if optical scanners couldn't identify those marks.

Yes, sometimes humans make mistakes. But when there are two (or more) humans looking at the same ballots, the probability is vanishingly small that they'll both make the same mistake; it's a system that always corrects those few errors.
Posted by N in Seattle on December 5, 2012 at 5:45 PM · Report this
the idiot formerly known as kk 5
Unfortunately, all the accuracy in the world doesn't do much good if the voters put a shithead like Don Benton into office. Might as well raffle the seat off and give the proceeds to charity, since any random dipshit would be far better than that blowhard idiot.
Posted by the idiot formerly known as kk on December 5, 2012 at 6:36 PM · Report this
Goldy 6
@1 In King County, ballots are tabulated in batches of several hundred each. Random batches are counted by hand both during the counting process, and afterwards, and then compared to the machine tally. Scanners are also tested before counting begins.
Posted by Goldy on December 5, 2012 at 8:19 PM · Report this
Any technology can be used to do no good. Ultimately, what matters is the people's involvement in the vote and beyond. Laws guaranteeing the fairness of the vote are always a good idea.
Posted by anon1256 on December 5, 2012 at 10:17 PM · Report this
I don't care what you say Goldy, Rush and the gang at Fox told me that it is ACORN's fault that Chink, Nazi, Socialist, Islamic, black guy got elected and now we are all doomed to driving off cliffs.
Posted by Machiavelli was framed on December 5, 2012 at 10:19 PM · Report this
9's a test that no Washington election has ever failed.

Phrasing it that way naturally leads me to believe that you are aware of cases somewhere in America where recount tests have failed... Florida 2000, perhaps?

If you are in fact aware of recounts that have shown the initial count to be a failure, the question you ought to ask is not "did this happen in Washington?" but rather "could this happen in Washington?"

More pragmatically, when you look at the election recounts you've studied that have revealed inadequate vote-counting (if any!), what characteristics might the systems used in those cases share with Washington's vote-counting systems?
Posted by robotslave on December 5, 2012 at 10:35 PM · Report this
So, in Washington, the problem is just the private money and the media influence and advertising it buys, not the vote counts. Although there's still that tricky business of disenfranchisement for felony convictions -- regardless of the type of felony -- until sentence, parole, and probation are completed, and the prosecutor's right to revoke restored voting rights if reasonable efforts to pay court-ordered fines haven't been made. Nationwide, one in nine African-American men of voting age are disenfranchised at any given time because of criminal convictions, but the statistics are probably skewed by the permanent disenfranchisement of felons practiced by many confederate and red states. It's probably not as bad in Washington, but it's still troubling.
Posted by PCM on December 5, 2012 at 10:52 PM · Report this

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