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In Vote-Counting, Human Errors Still Creep In

New York has been reluctant to embrace technology when it comes to counting votes. Could the state’s hesitation be the source for its recent election debacles? For full election coverage, go to Governing's Election Center.

AP/Mike Groll

One thing computers are good at is counting. But New York state seems reluctant to rely on machines when it comes to election results.

New York was the last state to implement the Help America Vote Act, the 2002 federal law passed to help avoid the kinds of vote-counting debacles seen in the 2000 presidential election. New York didn’t adapt to the new law until 2010, and even then it didn’t get things right -- particularly in New York City.

The city’s Board of Elections found 200,000 uncounted votes a month after the 2010 general election; Mayor Michael Bloomberg called it “a royal screw-up.” This past June, the outcome of a congressional primary was uncertain for days due to a slow count and shifting results.

The problem in New York was human error. Most New York state jurisdictions download results onto secure flash drives that are taken to a central computer for counting. But in New York City, district poll workers wrote results by hand on tally sheets that were then delivered, as legally required, by police officers to police precincts. There, they were added up again and then finally sent to elections databases.

This so-called cut-and-add process creates plenty of opportunities for mistakes, says Alex Camarda of the advocacy group Citizens Union. His organization is pushing for changes in state law to help straighten out the process. In the meantime, he was pleased to see a state legal opinion making it clear police officers could carry away flash drives, rather than just tally sheets.

That helped reduce -- but not eliminate -- the number of detectable screw-ups in New York City during legislative primary voting in September. Poll workers were still doing their old cut-and-add routine as a backup. In many cases, their hand-tallied results were delivered and tabulated faster than the flash drives. Marrying an old system to a new one worked about as well as it usually does. “It was not until 2:51 a.m., almost six hours after the polls closed, that the board’s digital effort caught up to its manual one,” according to the New York Daily News.

Brian Peteritas is a GOVERNING contributor.
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