Count me in

“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.]

To request a copy of the full report, e-mail


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6 thoughts on “Count me in

  1. Rob Close

    so there were 12,475 people who could have each voted 3 times. but the total amount of votes was 1,623 short. this is actually a much higher % of possible votes cast than i expected for this election. why?

    you had 4 democrats, only two of whom were really aligned, and independent and a republican. I can easily imagine many people having one or two favorites, and not wanting to aid anyone else’s attempt to get elected. With the odd variety of candidates out last time, I’m flat out surprised that so many people used up all 3 of their votes actually – just because you have 3 votes doesn’t mean you actually like 3 candidates out of 6 btw. In many instances that 3rd vote is going to whom people dislike the least.

  2. Grant Millin

    This is a partial definition of undercounts in elections. It’s the rest of the definition of election undercount the citizens ought to look into.

    Look into it and make you own voices heard.

  3. Jake

    This column is incredible. If Mr. Millin is was as all-fired concerned about the City Council election as he alleges, then where was he during the recounts? I was there, and I don’t recall seeing him.

    To follow on the previous post, I can tell you that there were MANY ballots that cast votes for only one or two candidates instead of three. I can say that with certainty because, unlike Mr. Millin, I OBSERVED the manual recount. His insinuation of some sinister undercount is an insult to intelligence.

    If Mr. Millin really wants to crusade for greater integrity in elections — and I’m all for it — he would do well to turn his attention to a jurisdiction that actually warrants it. And unfortunately, there are many. But I’m glad to say that I don’t live in one.

    The fact is, Buncombe County provides much better election services than Mr. Millin indicates. Buncombe leads the state in the number of early-voting locations it offers its citizens; in other words, there’s no other place in the state where it’s easier to cast your ballot. Buncombe also uses paper ballots for its elections, enabling effective audits and recounts. And it has been my experience that the staff at the Board of Elections is helpful and fully dedicated to fair elections.

    I have been reminded recently that the reason that Buncombe’s elections are sound is because the citizens have insisted on it. It hasn’t been automatic. Concerned citizens have worked and continue to work to make sure that our elections are conducted in a fair, impartial and accurate fashion. The Buncombe County Board of Elections conducts its business in public, and anyone who cares to can attend and participate in their meetings.

    Look, I wasn’t happy with the outcome of the City Council election, and I worked pretty hard on it. So it goes. But what is Grant Millin looking for? And what’s his point, really? I’m sorry, but I’m having a hard time understanding why Mountain Express would devote so much ink to so much nonsense.

  4. Grant Millin

    Jake gets an F in debate. He uses ad hominem language and avoids addressing the term undercount and its definitions. Jake fails to address ‘missing’ ballots: ballots that are marked with checks, Xs, or other clear marks that constitute legal votes (I checked and these are legal votes), but do not scan in optical scan voting machines.

    Most of all, Jake fails to address what happened in terms of all undercount factors in the 38 OTHER PRECINCTS THAT DID NOT GET HAND RECOUNTS in the Freeborn-Russell contest. I don’t expect a full manual recount, even when there’s less than 1% vote difference between two candidates. But NC law only requires a test of “at least one precinct” during an election, but the law also requires “statistically significant samples”. There’s a conflict there because a statistically significant sample out of 40 precinct is much higher than 2-3.

    DRE machines are not the answer. Larger sample sizes and a more liberal run off election triggering systems are part of the solution.

    In my essay (it’s not a report and it’s MX who inserted the term) I mention that North Carolina takes elections seriously, and I mean that the local and State Board of Elections do a good job. But the SBOE chief counsel told me that we don’t have a error measurement system. We don’t have an official error rate. It’s like your bank account. You depend on the bank to give you a proper tally of all activity in your account.

    I’ve been a poll worker and it’s hard work. I will not doubt do so again as poll workers today are usually of retirement age and the younger generations need to step up to the plate more.

    My analysis comes in part from what the Asheville Citizen-Times has reported. They and MX may need to cover this issue with greater intensity and space to really give the public an understanding of the local-national elections administration picture.

    There’s no error rate measurement system (quality control) in NC or the US that says after an election, “this election was 99.9% error free”, or “it was 71.15 error free” or whatever the case may be. I’m not talking about individual voters choosing fewer than the available number of vote choices on a ballot. I’m talking about voting system and elections administration errors that form the complete definition of the elections risk management term undercount. Voter performance is an issue and more can and should be done to get voters ready to use optical scan machines.

    Btw, minority communities suffer from undercount and elections system errors most.



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