Last 2008 Lessons Learned: Election Transparency

Election transparency was the third lessons-learned topic from the RSA panel that I wrote about earlier.  As in the other two lessons learned, the Humboldt County Transparency Project is a great example, but here are two more, to show the small and the huge ends of the scale.

Kudos to San Mateo county elections honcho Warren Slocum, for publishing some cool stats on the Nov. 2008 election and comparing it to previous elections. Now we all know exactly how many ballots were cast, how many were vote by mail (VBM) ballots, how many were provisional, how many VBM ballots were counted and how many not counted, and ditto for provisional ballots. We know that the top level numbers were up compared to previous elections (more participation, good!), that the percentage of provisionals was down (less scope for votes not to count, good), VBM was way up (good for participation, not so good for ballot secrecy), that the uncounted percentage was down (fewer ballots not counted, good!) and so forth. And I say kudos because I don’t think that these stats were easy to gather, though you might suppose a well-designed count-and-tabulate system would provide this info on a silver platter.

Now, for a next step in the future (soapbox warning: we are building this), we might see publication of all the information behind these stats, for example: for each VBM or provisional ballot that was not counted, what was the reason that the voter was ineligible, or the form on the envelops not filled out right? Who decided that, and when? Information like that would be some serious transparency, and in my opinion could work to increase the public confidence in proper election conduct, when these potentially disenfranchising actions are not secret anymore. Why do I think that? Let’s look to the end of the second example.

Second example: the transparency of the Minnesota 100% hand recount of all the paper ballots for the MN junior Senate race. Yes it was tedious, yes the wrangling was ugly, but shortly after the wrangling started, the public was able to see Internet-posted ballot images of all the ballots in dispute. Likewise, we had access to all the numbers of vote-by-mail ballots that were not counted, and the canvassing board decisions about why each one should or should not be counted under Minnesota election law. And as a result, we could see what the legal wrangling was about, which was basically two things. (1) A few thousand vote by mail ballots where there was some initial disagreement about the interpretation of the voter’s mark for choice for Senator; this got winnowed down to only 14 ballots where there still disagreement over the mark, and thankfully 14 is much smaller that the margin of victory. (2) A lot of review of the decisions to not count vote by mail ballots, and indeed finding some mistakes. But after the process was complete, there was a set of a 1000+ VBM ballot envelopes that the state canvassing board reviewed and decided were in fact not countable. Any remaining legal wrangling will be about whether some of these VBM ballots should be counted after all, on the basis of, I suppose, that the canvassing board erred in applying state law.

But all this dirty laundry was in public, and members of the public got pretty ornery about it — but not suspicious. As Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie recently said, people would recognize him on the street, and brandish a printout of a ballot image, and tell him that they made the wrong interpretation of the choice on that ballot. Many times, the person would be irate, but most of the time, after having their say, they also went on to express appreciation for the very visible and detailed work of the recount. They might disagree about a particular ballot, but for most part they agreed that the recount was being done well.

And that’s why I think public confidence would be helped in the future by election technology that captured and exposed to public view the same detailed information about election process that we saw being done in an ad hoc way in MN, and in baby steps by Warren Slocum and other transparency-minded election officials nationwide.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.