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Warren Stewart: Did We Bounce An Election?

Did We Bounce An Election?

By Warren Stewart,

I'll admit it; my checkbook is not very tidy. Like many people, I don't scrupulously reconcile my bank statements and I don't record every trip to the ATM or check card purchase the way my dad taught me. Usually everything works out fine but every once in a while I bounce a check and suffer the consequences of my sloppiness. It seems our public officials are being just as reckless with our votes. An examination of the New Mexico canvass report of the November 2 election suggests that the state might be running the risk of bouncing an election.

The canvass report (available as a pdf from the Secretary of State's website is the official record of the election results. It is certified by the state Canvassing Board (consisting of Governor Bill Richardson, Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron and Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Maes) and is used as the basis for determining who will represent the people of New Mexico in public offices and, in a presidential election, which slate of electors will be chosen for the Electoral College. With so much at stake, one would expect the canvass report to be a lot cleaner than my checkbook. That is not the case.

Much has been made of New Mexico's dubious honor of leading the nation in undervote percentage. I recently wrote an article pointing out the alarming number of phantom votes lurking in the New Mexico canvass report. Just what are undervotes and phantom votes and what do they tell us about our election process?

Phantom Votes and Undervotes both indicate a difference between the number of ballots cast and the votes counted in a particular race. Undervotes describe a situation in which there are fewer votes counted than ballots cast. Phantoms appear when the number of votes counted is mysteriously larger than the number of ballots cast. Many reasons can be given for undervotes: voters who choose none-of-the-above, voters who can't get cope with the technology, voters who can't read the ballot, etc. Whether or not you accept these undervote explanations, there's no acceptable explanation for a phantom vote.

Secretary of State Vigil-Giron seems surprisingly unconcerned about undervotes commenting recently that she doesn't "spend a lot of time on undervote issues, I'm just speculating that some voters are just not concerned with the presidential race." Does it really seem possible that 17,095 people (almost 1 in 20) felt compelled stand in line on Election Day in order to cast no vote for president? Did 1,664 people actually bother to cast their non-vote early and another 2,325 express their lack of opinion by absentee ballot? It seems just as likely that some of those undervotes represent votes that were not counted by the machines - and we will never know about how those votes might have affected the outcome.

Had she chosen to spend a little more time on undervote issues she might have noticed the curious fact that 85% of these apathetic voters chose to express their lack of concern on electronic voting machines - the ones without a paper trail. She also might have noticed that the undervote rate is roughly the same in the congressional and judicial races on the ballot, suggesting the possibility that entire ballots may have been blank rather than just the presidential selections. How do we know these machines did not lose entire ballots, as paperless voting machines have been shown to do in other elections?

As for phantom votes, the Secretary of State maintains they are simply "not possible." Much as I would like to agree with her, the canvass report suggests that there do seem to be phantoms residing in New Mexico - in almost half the counties. In fact, 228 phantoms seem to be in Dona Ana County precinct 106 where 107 absentee ballots somehow recorded 325 presidential votes. Bernalillo County Precinct 558, 141 phantoms voted early, while in Precinct 14, 114 phantoms waited until Election Day. In all there are 2,087 phantom votes in this state where the margin of victory, according to the same canvass report where all these phantom votes are hiding, was 5,988. If these phantom votes were ignored what else was ignored?

In the past, out-going elections director Denise Lamb has blamed these phantom votes on "administrative lapses." Lapses indeed. In a report submitted to the Secretary of State the day before certification, an independent auditor noted well over 500 errors in the 100 precincts that he was asked to examine, adding that these errors had been corrected during the process of the audit. There are 1,332 other precincts in the state and if they had the same error rate of 5 per precinct, we may have as many as 6,500 uncorrected errors that were not even identified, much less corrected before Governor Richardson certified this election.

When determining the President of the United States as well as state and local representatives, we cannot accept the level of sloppiness found in my checkbook. This election, like every election in a democracy, is too important.


(A report prepared by Ellen Theisen and Warren Stewart in support of the Green/Libertarian New Mexico recount effort along with a comprehensive database on the 2004 New Mexico election can be downloaded at )

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