“Out of a potential total of 37,425 votes, 35,802 were recorded. But some voters may have made fewer than the maximum three choices for candidates, officials said.”
— “Voting Machines Banned,” Asheville Citizen-Times, Dec. 20, 2007
Some? What sort of a numerical or statistical benchmark is “some”? Few things in our democratic system have more variables than our elections, but that complexity needs to be understood and managed—in terms of both voter performance (via education) and accounting (via national and state-level government risk-management measures). Elections must be conducted in a transparent and stringently controlled fashion, rather than becoming a perennial source of public cynicism and controversy.
We are ridiculous for having failed to completely restructure the administration of our national and regional elections in the aftermath of the tragedy that was (and continues to be) Bush vs. Gore. Most tragic of all was the muddying of the waters and the public’s lack of comprehension as to what was really going on. We are a nation based on the rule of law. And in the case of elections, it’s often the rules that determine which candidate becomes an “elected” official. We must take significant steps to increase the likelihood that the actual evidence of voter intent is what, in fact, wins the day.
Which of the courageous federal, state and local politicians who represent Asheville and Buncombe County are prepared to stand up and address the issue of electoral administration and security—again? In our last City Council election, a potential 1,623 votes—representing at least 541 voters’ ballots—weren’t counted. That’s already a 4.5 percent error rate (not including any other errors that may have been made), though a rate of voting-machine error and an undervote are two separate issues.
Based on the ballots that were counted, Bill Russell ostensibly defeated former Council member Bryan Freeborn by a margin of 0.1899 percent, or one-fifth of a percentage point. Accordingly, Russell is now serves on the Asheville City Council. But the process that put him there is fraught with risk. A decision was made, but can we call it a popular election based on counting all the ballots, or even a reasonable number of ballots?
True, people are sometimes elected to office by even slimmer margins than the 68 votes that separated these two. Yet we have no established margin of error in our elections, and the statistical samples that are used to test the process are far too small. It alarms me that our elections officials define an undervote—the difference between the number of people signing in at polling stations and the number of ballots collected and tabulated—only as the possibility that voters made fewer than the maximum number of ballot choices. Voting-machine and administrative error can also produce undervotes.
I asked the State Board of Elections what might constitute an acceptable margin of error for North Carolina elections, along with other questions and suggestions. I received a very informative reply from the agency’s general counsel, and this commentary is based partly on his generous responses and on current state election law. I have read the assurances that everything came out right—but for whom, and by whose standards?
As a mere citizen, I have significantly investigated factors related to Asheville’s most recent City Council election, and I see the same kinds of problems with Buncombe County’s administration of the process that are occurring around the nation. I have written a full-length essay describing the issues as well as potential solutions, including legislation sponsored by Rep. Heath Shuler. I would be happy to e-mail this information to anyone who’s interested (see below).
These problems must be addressed now. Let’s hear from our politicians while we still have the time, resources—and, hopefully, also the will—to act this year.
[Asheville resident Grant Millin is a member of Leadership Asheville’s 25th-anniversary class.]
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