Counting Some of the Votes

Here's an election reform proposal that has me intrigued. From Farhad Manjoo at Salon.com: But as many voting-reform experts have argued, manually counting the ...
by | February 4, 2008

Here's an election reform proposal that has me intrigued. From Farhad Manjoo at Salon.com:

But as many voting-reform experts have argued, manually counting the votes should be a routine in any race. There are logistical reasons why it would be impractical to hand count every vote in every election. But if we're going to use machines -- optical-scan machines that use paper ballots, that is; touch-screen machines everywhere ought to be burned -- we should, at least, conduct a randomized, accountant-approved audit of ballots.

In other words, after every election, officials should randomly count some number of ballots to double-check the machines' results. It is amazing that this is not a standard procedure across the country; it is a disgrace that election officials aren't rushing to implement such procedures now.

(Hat tip: Pollster.com)

It's music to my ears when people start talking about a  "...randomized, accountant-approved audit of ballots."

The idea here is the same one that underlies public opinion polls: a relatively small random sampling of a population reveals, with a high-level of confidence, the traits of the population as a whole. A poll of 4,000 voters, for example, has a margin of error of 1.5 percentage points.

What's more, lots of the reasons polls err (difficulty predicting who will show up to vote being a big one) don't apply when you're dealing with votes that have already been cast.

This concept isn't unheard of in state government. Some states use random samples to determine whether ballot initiatives have enough valid signatures, understanding that sampling is nearly as accurate as reviewing all the signatures -- and far less time-consuming.

For most elections, manual counts won't reveal anything that calls into doubt the results. That would be the point: restoring the confidence that's lacking in election results today.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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