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Politics Mondays: Lessons Relearned From California Recall Election by Faye M. Anderson


Major League Baseball manager and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson famously said, "Close only counts in horseshoes and grenades." In the wake of the California recall election, Robinson might add that every vote is counted only when an election is close (and the United States Supreme Court does not intervene).

One of the dirty little secrets of election officials is that a landslide buries voting irregularities. Since Arnold Schwarzenegger won the recall election by a wide margin, there are no calls for a recount. Still, not all is golden in California.

According to two independent analyses of the results, there were more than 380,000 residual votes (read: undervotes) in the Oct. 7 election. Residual votes represent the difference between the number of ballots cast as reported by the California Secretary of State and the number of "yes" or "no" votes recorded on the question to recall Gov. Gray Davis.

While the statewide residual vote rate was 4.6 percent, the rate varied from county-to-county depending on whether electronic ballots or punch-card ballots were used. In counties that used electronic ballots, the rate ranged from 0.74 percent to 4.09 percent. In punch-card counties, the rate ranged from 5.14 percent to 8.91 percent.

Los Angeles County registrar Conny McCormack conducted a manual recount of 1 percent of the ballots as mandated by state law. She reportedly "found little evidence of voting irregularities." While dismissing claims of a correlation between the rate of unrecorded votes and voting technology, she was not able to explain why the county's undervote rate is nearly twice the statewide rate.

Instead, McCormack attributed the county's 9 percent of undervotes on the first recall question to "very unusual drop off." She told the Associated Press that "any assessment of [voter] intention is just speculation at this point."

To be sure, some voters may have intentionally skipped the question on whether to recall Davis. But it strains credulity to suggest that the 187,000 unrecorded votes in Los Angeles County were cast by people who stood in a long line at their polling place with the intent of having their ballot tossed out.

"It's inconceivable that one in 11 people in Los Angeles went to the poll and did not cast a vote on the recall," said University of California-Berkeley Political Science Prof. Henry E. Brady. Prof. Brady is one of the researchers who looked at the numbers behind the vote count.

The researchers' findings should not be viewed as eye-glazing election minutiae. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that the country remains evenly divided and the 2004 presidential election will likely be close.

In a little over a year, voters in many battleground states will line up to cast their vote on punch-card machines that have a margin of error higher than the margin of victory in their state's 2000 presidential election. For example, Al Gore won New Mexico by just 366 votes; in Wisconsin, the difference was 5,708 votes. The winning margin was less than four percent in Missouri, Nevada and Ohio, and five percent in Arkansas and Michigan.

To keep the electoral circus out of their town, election officials, voters and civil rights groups must heed the lessons relearned in the Golden State. Lesson one: punch-card machines should be consigned to the trash heap of history. Their unreliability has been known since the early 1970s, when the National Bureau of Standards first sounded the alarm about these error-prone voting systems.

The ballot design matters. A multipage punch-card ballot is an electoral fiasco waiting to happen. The candidates' names do not appear on the cards so voters have no way of checking their ballot for mistakes.

Voter education is imperative. Voters must be educated on the voting process and their state voter's bill of rights. At the same time, voters must take time to check their registration and the location of their polling place. And voting rights advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law must remain vigilant to ensure fair and equal access to the voting and vote counting.

Last year, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, the most comprehensive voting rights legislation since the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At the signing ceremony, President Bush said, "When problems arise in the administration of elections, we have a responsibility to fix them. Every registered voter deserves to have confidence that the system is fair and elections are honest, that every vote is recorded, and that the rules are consistently applied."

For thousands of California voters, the promise that their vote would be recorded remains just that--a promise. For the sake of our democracy and America's role in the world, this promise must be kept in the 2004 election.



Faye M. Anderson is co-chair of the Voices of the Electorate Communications and Information Clearinghouse Committee. She can be reached at AndersonatLarge@aol.com


Monday, October 20, 2003

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