State recanvass law inadequate for close elections
You may have heard or read about post-election recounts after the recent primary. The reports were incorrect. There were no recounts. Connecticut law calls for something else, a recanvass.
The current recanvass law and procedures are inadequate to assure that the every vote is counted accurately and the correct winner certified. Experience shows that the current law is not well understood by election officials, candidates, and the media. The recanvass is often referred to as a recount, yet it is a far cry from the thorough, transparent, and adversarial recount process in other states. A positive example was the highly publicized Minnesota recount of the U.S. Senate race in 2008.
Connecticut’s current recanvass procedures are designed to parallel, for optical scanners, a law which was written for lever machines. In the age of lever machines recanvassing meant rereading counters of lever machines and recounting absentee ballots by hand. The current parallel optical scan procedure calls for rescanning most ballots and hand counting those that election officials deem to have a potential for being misinterpreted by the scanner.
The procedures to select ballots for hand counting are inadequate and do not spell out how ballots should be examined and the standards for manually evaluating them that would conform to law and precedent. Bubbles can be incompletely filled so that they might not be read by the scanner; the voter may have missed the bubble completely; the voter may have crossed out one candidate bubble and filled in another, which the machine would not have counted as a vote; and there may be voter identifying marks on either side of the ballot, which would disqualify the ballot altogether. Observing two optical scan recanvasses, I have seen that, in general, neither candidates nor election officials understand these important details.
The recanvass process is not transparent. The public may only observe from a distance. Even if candidates understand the details, they are only allowed two observers each to watch the entire process. Observers may not object during the process unless election officials consent and act on the objections. Two observers may be insufficient if more than two critical operations are being performed simultaneously, such as multiple teams counting ballots while others assess the scanability of ballots. Some municipalities have separate teams simultaneously counting several districts. Once again, my experience shows that officials and candidates do not generally understand how closely the process should be observed.
Compare that to the way Minnesota handles recounts: All votes are reviewed and counted by hand by teams of two officials, each team closely observed by a representative of each candidate. Both sides of each ballot are shown and examined for disqualifying voter identifying marks. The officials determine if and how each ballot counts. Any of the candidate representatives can disagree, in which case the ballot will later be adjudicated by agreement of the campaigns or, when necessary, by a state canvassing board.
The need for change in Connecticut is evident from the recent primary and recanvass of the race for state representative between incumbent Kenneth Green and Matthew Ritter in Hartford and Bloomfield. Preliminary results had Green ahead by two votes and the recanvass has Ritter ahead by two votes. Just one vote assigned to the wrong candidate or just two votes disqualified could mean a tie.
Green is contesting the count, pointing to some irregularities in the process. Candidates and voters should go beyond that and insist on a thorough, transparent, and adversarial recount on the general principle that the current process, even if accomplished flawlessly by the procedures, is inadequate in very close elections.
Luther Weeks is executive director of CTVotersCount and the Connecticut Citizen Election Audit Coalition. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of other Coalition member organizations.