Vote-counting problems widespread, not confined to Florida
By THOMAS HARGROVE
Scripps Howard News Service
The machinery of democracy in America is more broken than many state and local election officials know or will admit.
In the 2000 election, at least 1,605,263 reported ballots did not register a vote for president, according to a study of official election returns by Scripps Howard News Service. Sometimes the voter chose not to cast a ballot for George W. Bush, Al Gore or any other candidate for president. But more often, local election officials found antiquated voting equipment, mechanical failures, improperly programmed tabulation devices and faulty accounting methods accounted for the undervote.
"Nationwide, the system still has three flat tires," said Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox. "A lot of people are keeping their heads in the sand about this."
Florida drew worldwide attention four years ago when 178,145 ballots were not counted in the presidential race, mostly because of poor ballot design and disputed punch-card votes.
The Scripps Howard study found that seven states and 544 individual counties exceeded Florida's 2.9 percent undervote in their certified election results. The states were Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wyoming.
Most of these were not challenged by politicians or given attention by the news media.
"Florida showed for the first time the fragile nature of election administration," said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services Inc, an election consulting firm, and a frequent expert witness in court on balloting procedures. "The system still has problems. Once you let go of your vote, Lord knows what happens to it."
Several state and local voting officials contacted for this story denied _ sometimes angrily _ that there might be anything wrong with a rate of undervoting that was two, three or four times greater than Florida's in the 2000 general election.
"A voter not voting in a race is commonplace. Commonplace!" Oregon State Elections Director John Lindback said emphatically. "There's been a lot of bad reporting on this issue. People don't vote for races all the time because they don't know who to vote for."
But in a later conversation, Lindback said he is at a loss to explain why 7 percent of the voters in Grant County, Ore., did not vote for president in 2000 or why more than 10 percent of ballots in Klamath County, Ore., were invalidated in 1996 because voters reportedly selected more than one presidential candidate. "This suggests the machines were not (correctly) reading the ballots," Lindback said. "It should be raising the eyebrows of people like me."
Because ballots have since been destroyed, the 2,885 questionable votes in the two Oregon counties cannot be confirmed. Local election officials still defend the results.
"I don't know what to tell you. Strange things happen in elections," said Klamath County Clerk Linda Smith.
The most common means of detecting erroneous tallies is by comparing the total vote in high-profile races for president, U.S. senator or state governor against the number of ballots cast. Election experts say that state and local officials should be suspicious when an undervote exceeds 2 percent in such races.
Twelve states did not report the number of ballots cast in the 2000 general election, making any check of undervoting impossible. They were Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. There is no federal law that requires such reports.
The Scripps Howard study also found dozens of counties that made significant mistakes in counting the number of voters who went to the polls in 2000. Thirty-six counties reported more votes for president than actual ballots cast.
Two officials corrected their tallies after they were contacted for this story.
"It's been four years and we've given these figures out Lord knows how many times. But this is the first time that this was ever caught," conceded Cindy Moore, deputy elections officer of Reno County, Kan., which made a 3,176-vote error in reporting the number of ballots cast in the presidential race.
"I'm absolutely confident the candidate totals are correct. But we had a programming error for our optical scanner and some (of the ballots cast) got counted twice," she said.
Most of the suspiciously high undervotes, however, appear to be incorrectly tabulated ballots. The prime suspects in many of these were the voting machines, the study found.
Georgia's 159 counties had an average undervote of 5 percent, the highest in the nation for the 2000 presidential race. Rural Bacon County, for example, reported 354 of the 3,347 people who cast ballots that year did not vote for president.
Bacon County Elections Superintendent Joe Boatright steadfastly defends the 1,000-pound mechanical, lever-action voting machines his county had used since the 1970s. "It wasn't the voting machines. We kept them greased and always checked them a few months before an election," Boatright said.
He couldn't explain why the undervote _ 9 percent in 1996 and 11 percent in 2000 _ dropped to just 2 percent in the 2002 U.S. Senate race after the county switched to new electronic touch-screen voting machines. "There's no one on the planet can tell you why there was an undercount then," Boatright said.
Georgia Secretary of State Cox laughed after hearing of Boatright's remarks: "We used to get panicked calls from counties with lever-machines on election night. It happened several times. They'd open the machines at the end of the day and find nothing but zeroes inside. Some little wheel had gotten misaligned."
Cox ordered a re-evaluation of the Georgia vote after watching the recount in Florida. "What we found shocked us," she said. "Proportionately, Georgia had a worse undercount than Florida."
Georgia's undercount for president was 93,991 votes, or 3.5 percent of all ballots cast. Cox campaigned for $54 million from the state to purchase 26,000 touch-screen machines, replacing every voting machine in the state by 2002. The statewide undervote dropped to 17,728 for the U.S. Senate that year, less than 1 percent of all ballots cast.
The state with the highest aggregate undervote four years ago was Illinois, where 4.9 million people voted but only 4.7 million presidential votes were counted. The county average was lower than Georgia's because two-thirds of Illinois' 190,084 undervotes came from Chicago and its Cook County suburbs.
"The day after the election, we noticed we had an alarmingly high falloff in the vote," said Scott Burnham, a spokesman for Cook County Clerk David Orr.
The Illinois Institute of Technology studied the voting equipment and concluded that poorly manufactured voting templates _ plastic guides that voters use when poking their punch cards _ helped contribute to the 122,289 undervotes. More than 6 percent of the 2 million voters in Cook County failed to register a presidential vote.
"We trashed all 50,000 of those templates. Now we have new error-detection technology. And we hope to have all new voting machines in place by 2006," Burnham said. "Prior to the 2000 election, no one would think to check for chads. Florida changed all that forever."
There were other large presidential undervotes among major urban areas. The undervote in Los Angeles was 74,773.
Monmouth County, N.J., reported an undervote of 77,414, but most of that was due to a miscount in the number of ballots cast, officials said. This error in counting voters put New Jersey on the list of states with an undervote greater than Florida's.
The study found there were 10 states that each had an undervote of less than 1 percent. They were Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Nevada and Vermont. Minnesota, for example, had an undervote of 18,471, just 0.75 percent of the 2.5 million votes cast.
(Reach Thomas Hargrove at hargrovet(at)shns.com)ibuted by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com