Mark Blumenthal | January 19, 2008
Topics: 2008 , ABC , Barack Obama , Exit Polls , Hillary Clinton , John Edwards , Jon Cohen , New Hampshire , The 2008 Race , Washington Post
Arguably, the election results that will get the least attention today involve the hand recount underway in New Hampshire at the request of Democratic candidate Dennis Kucinich. The results of the recount so far, as posted by the New Hampshire Secretary of State, show some minor discrepancies but nothing that would explain pre-election surveys over the final weekend of the campaign showing Barack Obama running ahead of Hillary Clinton.
In most cases, the minor glitches appear to involve uncounted write-in votes or minor clerical errors. As the Union Leader reported yesterday:
The widest variations so far were in Manchester's Ward 5. Vote counters there mistakenly transposed write-in votes for vice president as votes for presidential candidate. As a result, all major candidates lost votes. Kucinich lost three in the ward and has a total of 20 votes there. Hillary Clinton lost 64 with a new total of 619; John Edwards lost 38 and has 217 votes; Barack Obama lost 39 and has 365, and Bill Richardson lost seven, leaving him 39.
For those interested, Salon's Farhad Manjoo has a nice review of the various fraud theories and the evidence (or lack thereof) behind them. One possibly overlooked point is that New Hampshire uses no touchscreen voting machines. Every ballot cast there was cast on paper, although as Manjoo reports, four out of five of the ballots were counted with optical scan equipment: "The machines that read the ballots and the computers that count the ballots and report the results are made by a company notorious for shoddy practices: Diebold."
Those who have raised questions about the count have pointed to vote returns showing Barack Obama doing better in the minority of mostly rural precincts that counted the votes by hand, while Clinton did better where votes were counted by Diebold machines. The most likely explanation, as Manjoo puts it: "Those places simply vote differently." See his article for the details, or the analysis of past vote results by the Washington Post's Jennifer Agiesta and Jon Cohen.
What about exit poll results cited by Chris Matthews showing Obama ahead? The problem is that the numbers that Matthews saw were likely based on a "composite" estimate that melds exit poll tallies and pre-election polls. It would not be surprising if those results showed an advantage for Obama (I blogged about that issue on Election Day well before any results were available).
I had no access to the "end of day" exit poll tallies available to the network decision desks, but Manjoo went directly to the source:
Daniel Merkle, who heads ABC News' "decision desk" -- which was getting the exact same exit polling data that folks at NBC were getting -- told me that the numbers he was receiving during Election Day did not show a certain Obama win. Merkle said the data indicated "a very close race on the Democratic side," and "that's what it ended up being."
"It was within a couple points," Merkle said. "When we're seeing an exit poll within a couple points, that's a close race." The exit poll numbers, he added, were a "surprise" compared to pre-election polls. "The exit poll was not showing an 8- to 10-point Obama lead. It was showing a close race."
Manjoo's piece is well worth reading in full, but he closes with a point made so well that I want to quote it in full:
Last night I had a long discussion with Brad Friedman, who runs the election-reform news Web site Brad Blog. Over and over, he said, "My biggest concern here is that 80 percent of the vote is uncounted by any human being." His request is simple and straightforward: "Why not count the damn votes?"
He's right. Why not count the votes?
And thanks to Kucinich, that's what will likely happen now. It will probably take some time; weeks, if not months. But soon, we'll know what happened.
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.
I couldn't agree more. Exit polls are extremely useful to those of us that want to understand who voted and the meaning of election outcomes, but they are a terrible way to verify the vote count. Random, hand-count audits coupled with optical scan voting would help raise everyone's confidence in the integrity of our elections. Without regular, independent, random audits, these perennial conspiracy theories will continue.