I write a lot on this blog about the trouble that litigants and partisans cause for elections officials. That probably has something to do with the fact that I’m trained as a lawyer; because I speak the language of courts, it’s easier to spot how and when litigation (or the threat thereof) is preparing to affect election administration. You can imagine my concern, then, when DailyKos (a well-known Democratic blog) recently had a post by contributor Dante Atkins with the aggressively-clickable headline “You won’t believe what happens in a manual recount.” Normally I resist the siren song of clickability, but a few people I know and trust on Twitter had shared it so I took the plunge. Know what? It’s a terrific piece. Here are the key parts (though it’s worth reading the whole thing):
I’m a relatively seasoned campaign professional, and I’ve been lucky enough (unlucky, perhaps?) to have already been part of two manual recounts in California. And while election and recount laws vary from state to state (hint: they really shouldn’t), the process is instructive, and provides insights into how we could make our entire voting systems better serve the people they’re intended to: the actual voters.
The first thing to understand about any election is that we don’t really have statewide elections or district elections. Instead, we have county elections. Let’s take California, for instance. The secretary of state is not counting any of the votes. Instead, all the secretary of state does is receive the tallies that each one of California’s 58 counties has come up with, and aggregate that result. A statewide election in California really isn’t that: it’s actually 58 separate county elections that are then tallied together to produce an aggregate result. Why does this matter? Because each county’s registrar of voters is the ultimate arbiter of whether a vote in that county gets counted, and that can have some interesting ramifications.
[L]et’s think about everything a registrar has to do to ensure that the initial vote count is as accurate as can be. To begin with, every ballot that is cast by mail has to have the signature on the ballot compared to the signature on the registration form. And yes: county registrars have staff members hired seasonally to do these comparisons and verify a voter’s eligibility. As for the poll ballots, the number of poll ballots counted in each precinct has to match with the number of ballots that were distributed and successfully cast by voters, and these numbers have to be reconciled precinct by precinct, and any discrepancies resolved. Further, the number of vote-by-mail ballots counted in each precinct must match with the number that were marked as received by staff during the vote-by-mail period. This process, called reconciliation, ensures that the number of ballots cast matches the number of ballots counted.