Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Sheila Dixon feels defrauded at the ballot box

Each election Baltimore voters have to wait for hours until results are known, many times irregularities surface.

Last Tuesday when the nation's President, Maryland's Senator, City Council Members, the Mayor and various judges and convention delegates were up for a vote by the ultimate sovereign, the voter, there was trouble from the get-go. Several polling places didn't open at seven and a judge had to declare on the sidewalk in front of the closed for fire-repair courthouse that some places had to stay open an hour longer until nine.
Instructions for the paper ballots

Then it took nearly tow more hours until 11pm for enough precincts to report results (around 80%) allowing the front runner in the mayoral election to declare victory. That is a full three hours after most polling places closed! With paper ballots and scanners one should think that results should be instant. The scanner basically has tallied the results all day. So why does it take more than, say, 15 minutes to report and tally all the results?

For one thing, it became quickly clear, that eight precincts hadn't returned their results at all. (Seven thumb-drives with the results for those apparently turned up over 24 hours later, for one precinct the ballots were counted by hand). Then, there were the absentee ballots which, due to incompetence at the Post Office seem to still trickle in, a week after the election. Then there is early voting, votes also cast with a paper ballot and scanners that actually were tallied before the election day on Tuesday. (the State Board of elections showed the early voting results very soon after the regular polls closed showing a clear lead for Pugh).

All in all, except for some absentee votes, all votes seem to have been counted by now and Senator Pugh is still in the lead. The originally missing memory sticks had reportedly all been in West Baltimore, Sheila Dixon's strongholds. However, the result is still 47,371 votes for Pugh over 44, 351 votes for Dixon as per the State Board of election website this morning.
Touch screen voting booths didn't even provide privacy 

It took the media a few days to pick up on the initially missing ballots and the noise that the Dixon supporters made around irregularities to become audible.

Now all kinds of charges are flying around, even though the official final tally is not expected before Friday.

Senator Ferguson felt the need to clarify on Facebook how the terms of tally and re-count are defined and what they mean:
Just for clarity, a vote tally would be recalculation of the machine memory sticks. This happens automatically when vote margin is less than 1%. An official vote recount would open up a ballot by ballot review, which likely leads to challenged votes (think hanging chads). That can only be done by a lawsuit within 72 hours of the vote being certified, likely Friday. However, in Maryland, for a recount of this nature, a campaign would have to pre-pay for the estimated cost of labor for the recount. It is likely an enormous sum, but I don't know how much. Of course, a court could intervene to require a recount, but that's highly, highly unlikely given the overall normalcy of this election. I cannot foresee a reasonable recount challenge that could ever lead to a substantive change of outcome (unless of course there was a recount and votes were challenged and dismissed, which of course would certainly seem like voter disenfranchisement itself). Senator Bill Ferguson.

Back some 40 years ago, I was a regular election judge in my  birth-town of Stuttgart. Elections took place on Sunday when schools could serve as a polling place without disturbing education and when most voters and election judges would have the day off. Voters were checked off against the registration books, just like here, received paper ballots and a pencil, and then disappeared in a closed booth with a curtain for total privacy. There they made an X next to the preferred candidates. Then the ballot was folded, sealed into an envelope and dropped into the ballot box.

Came 6pm, the polls closed, we pushed a few tables together and opened the sealed ballot box, tipped it over and counted first the total number of envelopes. Then we we divided the envelopes up into piles for each person top open them and count the votes by putting lines on a blank ballot list of names.

If the total votes per office didn't exceed the total number of envelopes we were done, if there were discrepancies, we counted a second time. Typically we were done after 30 minutes. If we had been chosen as a select representative district that would be used for a fast first projection, we had to count within 15 minutes and phone the result in. Those projections of representative precincts were selected by statistical relevance, like polls are done before elections to predict results from a small representative sample. The first projections were broadcast 30 minutes after the polls closed and they were usually accurate within 1-2%, even in local elections.

Except for the projections, there were no computers, no punch cards, no touch screens, no scanners and no memory sticks. There was no early voting but there was absentee voting. The precinct captain then put all the votes back into the ballot box, sealed again and drove it to the election board. During the next few days, the election board re-counted everything and declared an official result about a week later. But that was always a non-event that never changed the outcomes beyond a few single votes that had been mis-counted. As far as I know, that is to this day how it is done. And the results are always accurate an hour after the election is over.
It's a unique case of high-tech failing to conveniently handle reality. Even Linda Lamone, the state's administrator of elections, admits she struggles navigating Maryland's new $28 million voting machines.
"Staff, they literally drove me out there and said, 'Sit and fool with this thing,' and I got lost," Lamone said. (WBAL in a report about electronic voting machines)
After coming here and experiencing hanging chads, paper ballots with scanners,  touch screens and now paper with scanners again, a journey that has cost tax payers millions in procurement and hundreds of thousands in training and always has led to disputes, problems and uncertain results until late into the night, I can only conclude that technology doesn't really pay off when it comes to voting.
Baltimore Mayoral Candidates (the top contenders)

Casting a vote is not like making widgets. In voting efficiency doesn't come from automation and technology. It comes from simplicity. Voting is a process that is very intermittent (every two years at best) and it is entirely conducted by volunteers and lay people. There is no entry qualification required, anybody can and should do it. The simpler the better. That is true for the election judges and for the voters.

There is nothing simpler than paper and pen. I opt to even delete the scanners. There is only one in each polling place and when it goes down, or somebody doesn't know how to boot it up or read the memory, everybody is held up until a fix is in.

Whatever arguments were made for high-tech voting, they must have come from those who make a fortune by selling the stuff.

Meanwhile, mere statistics suggest that numerically there is no way that whatever small number of unaccounted votes would still turn up, they would change the Baltimore mayoral result; unless some massive fraud would be uncovered. It is unfortunate that the runner up on the mayoral vote seems to hint at just that.
Provisional ballots are typically handed out at polling places if an election judge has questions about a voter's eligibility. Jones' staff must review each one to see if the vote is legitimate. Some may be rejected if they lack a signature or contain partial information.
Although unlikely, Jones said the results of contests such as the mayor's race could change.
"You're dealing with numbers — anything is possible," Jones said. "But the way the numbers have been coming in, it's just not flowing that way."
One can only hope that come Friday the dust will settle. Having clean, transparent elections is obviously important in what wants to be a democracy. However, innuendo, vague suspicions and conspiracy theories can undermine a democracy as well as we clearly see on the national stage.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated 5/4/16

Baltimore election chief defends primary process amid criticism
Official election result (State Board of Elections 5/3/16)