Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Russ Baker Reports In From The Country's First Presidential Recount

Investigative journalist and commentator Russ Baker reports in from the country's first presidential recount -- taking place in, of all places, New Hampshire -- where the national outcome won't come into question, but the efficacy of the voting equipment could:

By Russ Baker, The Nation

The early results are trickling in on the nation's first ballot recount of the 2004 presidential election, which commenced November 18 in New Hampshire. John Kerry, for one, probably won't sit bolt upright at the news that three extra votes were found for him thus far in a state he won anyway. But if nothing else, the process confirms that in an age of technological overkill, old-fashioned paper ballots are still the best guarantee of the integrity of the democratic process.

The focus in New Hampshire is on precincts where results went strikingly against current statewide trends and past localized ones: a kind of under-the-hood check of the controversial private-sector machinery that increasingly drives the ballot- counting process and has drawn the skeptical scrutiny of activists throughout the country.

Final results won't be known until those stolid-paced Granite State folks complete their task sometime after Thanksgiving.

But so far, in the two precincts, or "wards," where official recounts were posted, the vote totals hardly changed at all. In the town of Litchfield, both Bush and Kerry gained three votes-- precious little out of more than 5,000 ballots cast. In Manchester's Ward 7, with a similar number of voters, Bush's total remained the same, while Kerry picked up three.

Clearly, New Hampshire plays no role in the crucial Electoral College (news - web sites) math in which we're all interested. Hence, verifying the integrity of the mechanism is the entire game here. The recount came about at the behest of Ida Briggs, a Michigan computer programmer and database designer whose number-crunching led her to doubt the trustworthiness of new voting and counting technologies. She zeroed in on bite-sized New Hampshire, and principally on certain Democratic-inclined precincts that trended more conservative while a conservative state trended more liberal. The suspect precincts, she noted, overwhelmingly relied on ballot-reading technology from Diebold Inc. -- the GOP- friendly Ohio company and ten-ton gorilla of the elections business. Her analysis convinced the Nader campaign to call for a recount, a purely civic-minded venture since the quixotic Nader, of course, would not benefit.

If the results from the two completed precincts are mirrored in the remaining targeted ones (another nine out of 126 total statewide), it may reassure the most skeptical among us that Diebold's much-criticized optical-scanning machines (35 percent of votes nationally are now opscan-counted) do a surprisingly good job of reading hand-marked ballots.

But even if Diebold receives a passing mark, the Concord recount, perhaps the first of several in statehouses nationwide (all-important election-decider Ohio may be reviewed in December), could by no means be considered a waste of time and resources. Irrespective of the outcome, the exercise itself teaches us important things about the benefits of openness in the pursuit of functioning democracy. It reveals a lot about what's good about our voting system -- and offers hints of what needs to be fixed, which is plenty. (continued.)

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