Last night at a friend's house, I had an interesting conversation with a county board supervisor who isn't yet convinced that we need to verify electronically tabulated election results. Give him credit for being willing to talk, but Roger (a pseudonym) is still comfortable with leaving the audit trail unaudited while we hand out certificates of election to whomever the output tapes indicated.
Last night, Roger dug in on an argument I find particularly curious. "Who are you," he asked, "to demand that the voting-machine output be checked for accuracy if the candidates themselves have not asked for a recount?
"Because we voters have standing." I replied. "Our right to accurate election results is not contingent upon whether your opponent was satisfied. And neither is the county clerk's statutory responsibility to certify only accurate results."
Roger didn't process that idea, but simply rephrased his point: "I won my last election," he continued, "By only 50 votes. My opponent conceded without asking for a recount. If he was satisfied with the results, why should anyone else question them?"
Roger isn't the only one from whom I've heard this argument in various forms. It's based on a politician's view of elections. To Roger, the election was a man-to-man contest between two and only two competitors. One of them accumulated the most inanimate points (votes) and won the prize of public office. Voters were like mere spectators at a sporting event, able only to boo or to cheer--but not to question--the referee's calls.
I then challenged Roger with the property-tax-bill analogy: Suppose we had a city treasurer who routinely pushed the "Calculate property tax bills" button on his computer and mailed the bills before checking their accuracy.
Assuming that any city treasurer would ever do this (none would!), I told Roger, "We would not tolerate it for a minute if the city treasurer defended this carelessness by saying, "I'll check accuracy when and if an individual property owner demands that I do."
"We would consider it a problem for the whole community, not just one taxpayer, if we knew it was possible that the system had charged lower tax rates to homes in one part of town than another," I said. "We would not wait for the overcharged owners to suspect the error, or demand that they foot the bill for the audit when they did."
"How is it so evident," I asked, "that city treasurers, but not elections officials, have active ongoing responsibility for the accuracy of their computers' output?"
Roger's a lawyer and was in lawyer mode, so I didn't expect him to concede anything. He didn't. He pointed out that the property owners who thought they'd been overcharged would object, and I agreed. He did not, however, engage on either the point that both the city treasurer and the elections official have responsibility to check the accuracy of their computers' output regardless of whether anyone demands it, or the point that the community as a whole has an interest in both accurate property tax bills and accurate election results.
That particular blind spot--perceiving election results to be more like the private property of the candidates than the shared property of the community--accounts for a significant part of the opposition to routine verification. I notice it whenever people start talking about recounts as any sort of acceptable substitute for routine prudent verification of computer output.
Elections are by far the most powerful and basic means by which we, the People, can exercise our collective right to self-government, and I will not concede to any individual candidate--winner or loser--my standing to demand proof that my community's votes were counted accurately.
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The take-away point of this blog post is the major principle: Elections belong to the people, not to the candidates. However, there is a technicality I also want to explain.
When I got home, I looked up the results of Roger's last election. He remembered correctly that he got 50 more votes than his opponent. That gave him 50.89% of the votes to his opponent's 49.1%, or a victory margin of 1.79%. Current law provides for free recounts only when the margin of victory is less than 0.25% (in that election, 7 votes), so his opponent would have had to pay the full cost of the recount.
This in a county where the voting machines have already demonstrated they are capable of allowing dust bunnies to cast at least 1.3% of the votes.
Prudent, professional elections administration simply does not make verification contingent upon individual candidates' willingness and ability to pay for a full recount and to be labeled a 'sore loser.'