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Michael Collins: Cliffhanger in a Sea of Blue

Cliffhanger in a Sea of Blue

California's 4th Congressional District, Republican since 1992, combines vast regions, sparsely populated, and growing suburbs and exurbs.

Charlie Brown (D) Refuses to Give up in California's 4th Congressional District

Michael Collins
"Scoop" Independent News

California turned blue with a vengeance in the 2008 presidential election. President-elect Obama's 61% majority plus a 78% turnout rate statewide was enough to strip the Republicans of all but one county with a significant population.

The "blue tsunami" started in San Diego County at the southern tip of the state and flowed up the Pacific coastal counties through Mendocino. The only county with a major population that remained loyal to the Republicans was Orange County, the former center of right wing politics in the Golden State, and that was by a mere 2.6% McCain margin.

Yet, the 4th Congressional District is still counting votes with a too-close-to-call election. John T. Doolittle (R) retired this year after holding the seat since 1992. Democrat Charlie Brown took a second run for the seat, having lost to Doolittle in 2006 by just 3 points. In 2008, Brown received nationwide support from high profile veterans and veteran's groups and was well funded from a variety of sources.

His Republican opponent, Republican Tom McClintock, hoped to maintain Republican dominance. McClintock was considered one of the most conservative members of the California legislature. His main issue in the campaign was fencing the border to keep out illegal workers.

On election night McClintock had less than a 1,000 vote lead with thousands of uncounted ballots. Rather than surrender, Brown issued the following statement on Nov. 5:

"We understand that there are still more than 40,000 ballots remaining to be processed, and we will not know the outcome of this election until all of those votes are counted.
"Our priority today is to support a fair and accurate count of every ballot."

Throughout the process since election night when the votes were announced, Brown and his campaign have maintained calm. Brown refused to concede as is the common practice. Given the absence of 40,000 votes from the final count, this was a sensible position. By keeping the campaign open, he's assured a witnessed count of those votes.

On Nov. 14, this statement appeared on his campaign website:

"As of this morning, just 532 votes separated Charlie Brown and Tom McClintock, with more than 31,000 absentee and provisional votes left to be tallied in five CA 04 counties.

"Together with an amazing group of election observers, we are working 24/7 to ensure that every vote is counted, and every voice is heard in this pivotal race."

After 23 days of counting, there are still 17,000 uncounted votes. The current standing in the race is Charlie Brown (Dem) 182,967 with 49.7% and Tom McClintock (Rep) 184,543 at 50.3%. The 1,500 vote lead for the Republican represents 11% of the estimated 17,000 ballots left to be counted. Of the 17,000, 2,000 are provisional ballots cast by voters who show up at the wrong precinct or claim they're registered despite not showing up on the voter rolls. Fifteen thousand of that total are ballots that were rejected for some reason and need to be re-examined. (See chart of vote count by county with turnout and count status)

Brown's web site post on Nov. 25 indicates his campaign will continue. In addition to discussing the information above, he's requesting voters check the status of their votes and contribute funds to support his election protection efforts.

Given the difficulty of overtaking McClintock in the remaining count, Brown appears to be readying for a recount of all the votes. All of this effort will gain him access to the true process of seeing a hand count of paper ballots in his race.

Recounting the Votes - A Good Idea

California allows a recount under three conditions. The Secretary of State can order one based on malfeasance by election officials or other criminal activity that may alter the results. A citizen can request a recount and a court may order one. The third option allows a court to order a recount if it finds improper or negligent procedures that would alter the true outcome of the vote.

In the case of the Brown campaign, the most likely option is a citizen request. Once the request is made, each county board of elections sets a price. Then the process begins -- hand counting each paper form used for the optical scan readers. In the case of this district, all but a few of the ballots are counted by optical scan readers using voter completed paper forms.

Why is this good idea?

First, the difference in victory margins is likely to be less than half of one percent. There are more than enough examples of computerized e-voting machines making much higher than 0.5% errors.

Second, there are problems with each of the e-voting vendors that recorded and counted the votes. Premier Elections Solutions (formerly Diebold) counted 80% of the votes, Hart InterCivic 15%, and ES&S 4%. (See chart of voting systems and votes counted)

They were all tested (and failed) in a major effort in 2007 conducted for the state by the University of California. Premier System's optical scanners counted the majority of votes despite this problem previously identified in the 2007 testing:

"The Red Team was able to verify the findings of some previous studies on the AV-OS (Premier AcuVote OS) unit; the impact of these was to alter vote totals in order to change the vote results on that machine." (Author's emphasis) Executive Summary 2007

The machine that counted 80% of the votes in the 4th is vulnerable to changes that can alter vote totals. That should be sufficient cause to mandate hand count the entire 80% regardless of the closeness of the race.

In response to certifying the three voting machines used in the 4th, Republican Secretary of State McPherson said local officials could manage the security risks each presented but warned about the vulnerability of the machines in large contests. Apparently it was too much trouble for the state to ask that the vendors provide a quality product that was secure against malicious alteration.

Why Not Just Count the Paper Forms and Bypass the Optical Scan Computers

Unless there is a hand count of the paper forms used for the optical scan readers, we will never know who won in the 4th district. In fact, unless we utilize hand counted paper ballots without optical scans or other computerized e-voting devices, we'll never really know who was actually chosen by a majority. The vendors who produce these machines are politicized. The equipment is sub par technology riddled with vulnerabilities for hacking and errors. The problems are rarely fixed and when they are, there are always new problems. Vendors are allowed to hide critical data due to "proprietary" interests.

Citizens can't observe the process in a meaningful way and candidates can't truly prove that they were elected. Elections in which votes are counted in secret by computerized machines produce questions that cannot be resolved.

We are burdened with a voting system that divorces the citizen from the election process.
Arguing that somehow the use of optical scan machines represents the use of real paper ballots is simply wrong. To get at the ballots, you need to go through what candidate Charlie Brown is going through and hope that your state allows citizen requested recounts (not all do) and that you can raise the money to pay for it. Why not just count the paper ballots form the start?

Every time a single line of computer code comes between citizen ballots and the final election result, it's another instance of democracy denied.


Special thanks to internet poster Glitch for calling my attention to this race.

Excel spreadsheet of election data on the 4th district
Chart of vote count by county with turnout and count status
Chart of voting systems and votes counted

Permission to reproduce this in whole or in part with attribution of authorship, a link to this article, and acknowledgment of images as indicated.


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