Croker Sack

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." — Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)

Friday, April 08, 2005

King County's Puzzling Absentee Ballot Processing

The internal memo describing the discovery of 93 absentee ballots which had been mistakenly omitted from King County’s vote tabulation after the November 2004 general election raises a few questions. (Thanks to Stefan Sharkansky, who posted the memo at Sound Politics.)

Not all the ballots noted as missing on the batch slips were found.

What happened to the five missing ballots which weren’t found?

Six ballots were found which belonged in particular batches of ballots, yet there supposedly weren’t any ballots missing from the vote tabulation according to the batch slips.

How could the batch slips show no discrepancies, when there in fact were ballots which didn’t make it all the way to the vote tabulation stage?

Sometimes, the batch slips contained notes stating that the ballots were tabulated twice and hand counted – and sometimes no such notes were made on the batch slips.

Page two of the internal memo purports to explain the significance of the notes that recorded the extra tabulations and hand count efforts:

The batch slip also indicates that the ballots opened and transferred to tabulation were counted twice to verify the count at tabulation and an additional hand count of the ballots was performed. It is standard procedure to perform additional research on a batch that is off in the number of ballots tabulated from the number of ballots verified.

This explanation may be correct (or not, see below), but if it is, then what steps were taken to ensure that the correct number of ballots was passed from one stage to the next?

The explanation indicates that tabulating the ballots twice and even hand counting them were done at the end of the process – when the number of ballots tabulated didn’t match the number of ballots accepted as valid.

If the numbers weren’t checked at each stage of the process, it would be very difficult to go back and resolve any discrepancy, since the discrepancy might have been introduced when the ballots were at the verification, opening, manual inspection, or tabulation stage.

Not all the batch slips involving missing ballots contained an indication that the ballots were tabulated twice or hand counted. Was it a standard procedure or not?

Tabulating twice and hand counting were also noted on some batch slips even when there was no discrepancy indicated by the batch slip numbers. Why double-check when there was no apparently missing ballot?

Were the ballots stored in the same batches while awaiting the first and second recounts?

If they were stored in batches, rather than sorted by precinct, would the batch slips have been used to record a count of the ballots when they were taken out of storage for those recounts?

Did the person writing the internal memo misunderstand the notes indicating the ballots were tabulated twice and hand counted? They were all supposed to be tabulated twice by machine (the initial and the first recount) and once by hand (the second recount).

Perhaps those notes don’t show an effort to double- and triple-check the number of ballots that reached the initial tabulation, but instead simply record the three times the ballots were tabulated. (If so, then all the batch slips should have had such notes – but not all did.)

The most puzzling part is the absence of any indication that anyone went looking for the missing ballots even when the batch slips showed discrepancies. What’s the point of processing ballots in batches, if not to make it feasible to resolve discrepancies before proceeding to the next step in the process?

Perhaps some day we will see whether this same mishmash of notes and numbers on batch slips occurred when there were too many ballots in the tabulation compared to the number verified. That situation would have presented the mirror image of the missing ballot scenario, and the discrepancy should have been noted and resolved if possible.

King County delayed the release of polling place ballot reconciliation records while they tried to put together an explanation and summary that would purportedly make it easier to understand what they had done.

How long will they delay the release of records showing whatever audit trail exists for their absentee ballot processing? They will surely want to try to put the best face on it before making the records available.


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