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Election 2008: Spotlight On Minnesota

Election 2008: Spotlight on Minnesota

By Joan Brunwasser, OpEdNews

November 13, 2008

Mark Halvorson is the director and co-founder of Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota (CEIMN). In 2004, he traveled to Ohio to observe the recount. CEIMN was founded in the wake of what happened there, its goal to ensure that votes are counted accurately. They seek "to [restore] the integrity of our electoral system through the implementation of:

* Voter verified paper ballots as the legal ballot of record for all elections.

* Accurate recording, counting, and reporting of all votes cast.

* Random hand recounts that are part of routine audits.

* Consistent enforcement of election procedures to ensure that everyone who wants to vote can do so without difficulty and to prevent all forms of vote fraud.

* Public oversight (eg., of voting machine software source code) and non-partisan administration of the election system." (CEIMN website)

Halvorson is a big fan of mandatory manual audits*. Audits are critical for protecting the integrity of the election process by providing an independent check on the accuracy of the election outcomes. Minnesota, widely considered a model for election administration, will have the opportunity during the audit and the recount, to demonstrate how accurate, transparent and fair elections should be conducted. The national spotlight is on Minnesota right now because of the closeness of the Coleman/Franken Senate race. At this point, a little over 200 votes separate the two candidates. If Franken prevails, he could bring the Democrats a bit closer to a filibuster-proof Senate, so a lot is at stake. A statewide recount was automatically triggered by the close contest.

While we await that recount that begins November 19, a post-election audit is being conducted at this very moment. Minnesota is one of only 16 states that mandate this, and it was first used in place in 2006. The state is comprised of 4,123 precincts and 87 counties. 200 public-minded, democracy-loving, citizen volunteers are among those observing roughly 5% of the ballots from a minimum of 202 precincts across the state.

The audit takes about ten days. Each of the 2.9 million ballots cast in last week's election will be examined and tallied by hand. Since Minnesota state law mandates paper ballots, touch-screen machines play no role here. The audit looks at three races only: President, US Senate, and US Representative. If the audit shows a discrepancy from the machine tallies of Election Day of over .05%, more precincts will be audited.

Halvorson explains how it works: There are three escalation stages in the audit law. If a discrepancy occurs in just one precinct, greater than 0.5% compared to the election day tally, then three more precincts are audited. If a discrepancy is found in just one of these then a county-wide count will occur, and if a discrepancy in one precinct occurs in the county-wide count, then it will require a race-wide count. Parenthetically, he adds "In 2006, no counties were required to escalate due to the accuracy of the machines."

On the other hand, I would point out that even a small discrepancy can make a huge difference when spread across the state. It all adds up. Bob Sternberg wrote in Tuesday's Star Tribune: "If that discrepancy rate [.00056, in 2006] occurred statewide in the current Senate race, it could potentially change more than 1,600 votes -- eight times the margin that currently separates Franken and Coleman." When I asked Halvorson about this, he replied that because we can't know whom the discrepancies will favor, and because there are actually three candidates as well as several write-ins, for the time being, this race is literally too close to call.

This manual audit will wrap up tomorrow, with its official report expected some time next week. We can ascertain the accuracy of all of the different vendors' optical scanners used across the state. Halvorson points out: "This oversight in the law [also] gives us a rare opportunity to compare the audit alongside a recount." Just how rare are Minnesota recounts? Almost as rare as hens' teeth. Except for a judicial race several months ago, the last Minnesota recount was back in 1962 when it took 139 days to determine the winner of the governor's race.

Halvorson is quietly confident they are up to the task. He proudly points to Minnesota's history of solid election administration: paper ballots as the official ballot of record, an enlightened Secretary of State, key legislators like Bill Hilty – author of the manual audit law, same day registration, a recount law, and even a partial discretionary recount law. Many states could learn a lot from Minnesota's quest for fair and accurate elections. Halvorson and CEIMN worked with New Jersey to develop what is now considered the gold standard of post-election audit laws. (The New Jersey law is based on the ideas in the document "Audit Principles and Best Practices" that Halvorson promotes to help guide states in drafting new or improved audit laws.) Ironically, since the Garden State currently uses paperless touch-screen machines, there is literally nothing to audit. Their audit law may be the best there is, but it's all dressed up with no place to go.

So, it's a stroke of luck that New Jersey wasn't the one with the contested race. The same goes for numerous other states. Mississippi and Hawaii have no recount provisions at all. Other states regard the electronic vote as the official vote, offering no reason for confidence in the official vote totals. In those cases, the machines essentially check themselves, a mockery of the crucial concept of checks and balances. Everyone – skeptics from both parties as well those from the election protection movement and just plain citizens – wants to be assured that these votes have been counted accurately. What isn't caught by the audit should be picked up by the wider reach of the recount.

In terms of getting to the bottom of this senate race and determining who will be the ultimate victor, we're fortunate that this close contest happened in Minnesota. In a few weeks, we'll know a lot more about the fitness of this system of electronic optical scanners and the integrity of our vote, at least in Minnesota.


*Bev Harris, founder of Black Box Voting, offered the following comments via email:

The process being used to evaluate elections is not an audit. It is a spot check. Real audits incorporate a review of checks and balances. If procedural checks and balances are not in place, or are supposed to be used but were not followed, the auditor disclaims any opinion on the accuracy of the results, whether or not the numbers match. It is nice to spot check voting machine results, but if you don't do a concurrent evaluation of whether the seals match, and whether there was adequate segregation of duties, and whether the so-called checks and balances actually check and balance, you really have no idea whether you are spot checking authentic information.


Thanks to Ellen Theisen for her help on this article.



Authors Bio:
Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which exists for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. We aim to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Electronic (computerized) voting systems are simply antithetical to democratic principles.

CER set up a lending library to achieve the widespread distribution of the DVD Invisible Ballots: A temptation for electronic vote fraud. Within eighteen months, the project had distributed over 3200 copies across the country and beyond. CER now concentrates on group showings, OpEd pieces, articles, reviews, interviews, discussion sessions, networking, conferences, anything that promotes awareness of this critical problem. Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005.

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