AUDITING and RECOUNTS in OHIO: Would You Let This Team Count Your Money?

By Marj Creech
Dec. 28, 2006

I woke up this morning thinking about the recount I witnessed in Madison County, Ohio at the BOE in the little town of London, for the Kilroy/Price 2006 Congressional race. At the time I couldn’t put my finger, or nose, on anything that smelled particularly fishy, and I still can’t. The 3% not-so-random recount had matched—yeah having the two precincts selected by someone, or someones, from the Board of Election, sort of defeats the purpose of an unbiased recount, but Blackwell had already sent a directive long before this recent election, that said that the selection did not have to be “mathematically random,” whatever that means. So they didn’t break the letter of the law, and the Chair of the BOE, told me that, “They didn’t favor one precinct over another,” but selected one rural precinct and one precinct from London, the “city,” that added up to just over 3 percent of the total votes. Why should anyone reasonable have a problem with that?

It came to me this morning that everyone conducting or observing the recount has a different agenda for doing it. For the majority of election workers the reason is that it’s required by Ohio law when the count difference between candidates is 0.5% or less. Their agenda is, “Let’s get this done as quickly and efficiently as possible, and show anyone who cares that we are doing our job right.” How that translates is an audible cheer when the 3% non-random hand count matches a new machine count, and that machine count matches the election day machine count. No one bothers to try to see if the number of signatures of voters on election day plus absentee ballots plus provisional ballots, match the total number of votes. That kind of audit is not required by law. So if the hand count matches the machine counts, old and new, no more ballots have to be counted by hand, the recount proceeds to all machine counting of the rest of the ballots, and we all get to go home after a few hours and the recount is over. On to regular after-election administrative mop-up, and Christmas shopping.

For higher-up election officials the agenda might be proving to the observers, like me, and the guy from the House Administration Committee of the US Congress, that “all is OK in Ohio elections, especially in the way this BOE is run. There is no fraud and at least these officials are competent and forthright.” The job of the Chair of the BOE at this recount was to make sure we observers stayed seated in our corner—where we could not see the names on the ballots, or see the tally tapes run from each machine, or what was going on in the back room where the electronic cards from each machine were read and tallied. He also made sure we did not talk or ask questions, except when the Director asked us if we had any questions. Oh and the Chair was also asked to remake ballots when the marks were too weak for the optical scan machines to read. A person of the other major party watched him do this, but we observers could not see if they did it right or not. The old replaced ballot was taken to the storage room and placed somewhere. Or more often than not, the checks or x’s that were not being scanned were darkened in on the same ballot. The old ballot no longer existed, for anyone to ever see again.

For the two Republican observers sitting to my right, the agenda was to make sure that Kilroy didn’t somehow pull out enough votes to overturn Price’s lead. Kilroy, I heard them saying later, had already caused some rejected provisional ballots to be reinstated in Franklin County. One of the Republican women objected loudly when all of us were given a list of names and addresses of voters whose provisional ballots had been rejected in this county. “That should not be given out!” she said, purportedly to protect the identity of the voters, but I believe her real concern was that the Kilroy campaign would contact the voters and find out how they voted and try to get their votes counted.

The agenda of the technician for the ES&S voting machines, would be what? He might say, “Making sure the machines function correctly, without glitches.” He told me he knew nothing of software, but that his job was “simply” to make the electronic cards for each precinct so that the ballots would be read correctly. Apparently there is still “rotation” of candidates on optical scan ballots, just like on punch cards, for each precinct, even on precincts that are at the same polling site, that is, in precinct “A” the order on the ballot might be Kilroy, followed by Price, followed by the Independent candidate, while in precinct “B” the order rotates to Independent, Kilroy, Price. I asked him if a voter went to another precinct’s optical scanner, wouldn’t their choices be read wrong? He said no because the machine won’t read the wrong ballot because of the printed marks on the ballot and the card inserted into the machine at the beginning that tells the machine what precinct to read. I didn’t think to ask him if someone could use a wrong electronic card on purpose in order to make, say, the Kilroy votes go to the Independent.

So what’s this guy’s real agenda? If I had his job my goal would be making sure my machines came out looking and smelling like roses, by quelling all doubts that they ever counted wrong, or mutilated ballots, or failed to read them. I would want to not give anyone any reason to suspect that manipulation of the vote was even a remote possibility. But why did he keep staring at me throughout the recount? I had no reason to question his integrity, a good-looking young (early 30’s?) man with darkish complexion, perhaps latino, who moved with competence and confidence.

No, the problem was not a reasonable question as to anybody’s honesty. The problem is that we do not have citizen oversight, or any unbiased oversight for that matter, of our elections, not even in close outcome recounts. Whose agenda is it to have an honest transparent election or recount? For whom is this the number one reason for a recount? I was the only one who could say I was even close to that purpose. Personally I preferred that Kilroy might somehow win but even with that bias, because of my election integrity work for over the past two years, I can honestly say I wouldn’t want her or anyone to win by unfairly adding or subtracting votes. But why was I the only one looking for possible fraud, machine insecurity, breaks in chain of custody, and general sloppiness in handling our ballots? Where are the professional security auditors, those whose job I was doing as a citizen volunteer? Where were the other citizen volunteers so that we could compare notes and have more eyes, and demand to be where we could actually see the names on the ballots and the results tapes from each machine, and write down those tallies so that we could add them ourselves? Why weren't we allowed to watch the final tallying and see for ourselves if the totals matched the original election totals? Why aren’t our elections audited like a bank, where auditors, whether professional or trained citizens, or both, come in with only the agenda of checking the totals, looking for fraud, and security risks, and make suggestions for tightening security?

What I did see from my little corner of the recount room was that the machine recounts failed to match the election day machine counts for several precincts. A few votes here, a few votes there, and for one precinct’s count, eleven votes off! Because the agenda of the election officials was to resolve these discrepancies as quickly as possible and the agenda of the ES&S technician was to show that his machines could not possibly be counting wrong, everyone scrambled to find the problem with the paper ballots, not questioning the machine counts.

Were the ballots in the wrong pile and were thus counted in the wrong precinct? (I wonder what happened to the technician’s explanation that the machine would not count ballots from the wrong precinct?) The technician went into the back and said that from the printout he could tell that ballots from another precinct had been counted in the wrong precinct. A physical search found them.

In some cases a hand-count was made of the ballots, not individual votes, but just number of ballots, because it was just assumed that the machine was counting votes correctly, and that the discrepancies would be found in the operator feeding the ballots incorrectly. Since at least 6 to 8 of the precincts of the 44 precincts of this county had discrepancies, weren’t they lucky to have the two picked for recounting match perfectly? Wouldn’t it be tempting to run those two precincts early, say the night before the recount, and find and fix any discrepancies with the machine count? Such behavior is consistent with the agenda of the BOE workers and the technician, since looking for fraud is not on the table.

The system of recounting we have now in Ohio is like having the bank employees do their own audit, while only the IT guy has control over certain aspects, namely, setting the counting machine to count all the money, and then overseeing the final tally. Oh yeah!--and this guy also works for the expensive counting machines the bank has just invested in--he’s not even a bank employee. AND I almost forgot to mention that the owners of his company have a vested interest in having a certain customer of the bank have the most money. But not to worry! The customers, with proper clearance, can come in and sit in a corner and watch the money being counted, far enough away not to be able to see the denominations or the tally slips of course.

Why, in the name of Democracy, do we let machines count, and recount, our ballots, machines that are programmed and run by a vendor, under the watchful eye of-- ultimately, himself?

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Marj Creech is an Ohio election integrity advocate active with J-30, CASE Ohio, and other grassroots groups, and an EDA Co-Coordinator for Volunteer Recruitment and Training. She can be reached at 740-924-5083 or by e-mail at risenregan(at)earthlink(dot)net.