Thursday, January 03, 2008

Eureka Times-Standard OpEd: Hand-counting ballots can work

As promised last night, below is the My Word opinion column I wrote, published in today's Eureka Times-Standard, though oddly not yet on the paper's website (I picked up a hard copy and found the piece on page A4, including a picture of me from at least three years ago).

UPDATE: 1/3/08 12:20pm -- The T-S website now has my column. It occurred to me over the past few hours that the headline it was given, while certainly a positive statement, doesn't really reflect what this essay is about. I've been saying hand-counting can work for years now. This piece says the T-S is abdicating its responsibility to foster community dialog about whether hand-counting is superior to Diebold opscans, even as the Voter Confidence Committee creates the very means by which the community can make objective comparisons. A more apt headline would have been: "Election Watchdogs Dog Newspaper For More Detailed Dialog on Election Conditions."

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Hand-counting ballots can work
My Word, by Dave Berman

Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich said hand-counting paper ballots is "not a practical solution" ("As primary fast approaches, election offices are in turmoil," 12/24/07) and she's not convinced it would be more reliable than continuing to use secret vote counting machines repeatedly discredited in actual elections and academic studies, including CA Secretary of State Debra Bowen's Top To Bottom Review.

It is certainly reasonable for the Times-Standard to publish the Registrar's opinion. But did the T-S ever ask her for data comparing counting methods for accuracy, cost or any other measure? The Voter Confidence Committee (VCC) has requested such information, repeatedly, and the Registrar has not only confessed to having no such information, she has failed to deliver on her promise to obtain it and make it available.

Setting the Registrar's unsubstantiated opinion aside, the bigger issue is false balance, which the T-S created by pairing the Registrar's view with superficial mention of the VCC report recommending hand-counting, noting also that we're documenting community support for the idea.

Not mentioned is the VCC hand-count forecast tool (a spreadsheet), used to create projections and plan for the requirements of hand-counting in precincts on election night. This allows the public to objectively judge whether hand-counting is indeed preferable.

In fact, this was our contribution to the federal lawsuit mentioned in the "turmoil" article, and it was previously described in the T-S on August 16.

When this becomes part of the story, an unsubstantiated opinion no longer stands in true balance, instead reflecting false balance. "He-said/she-said" can not truly balance all news articles. The community can and should discuss the relative merits of hand-counting in tangible terms, made possible by the VCC but shunned by the T-S.

Yes, shunned.

Readers should know the T-S editorial board met with VCC members on August 14. Not only was the forecast tool presented at that time, the VCC also reiterated concerns stated in our report about the Registrar's so-called "Transparency Project."

Our critique has appeared elsewhere in local media, but its absence from the "turmoil" article falsely suggested universal support for the project.

Worse still, the article cited Bev Harris as a Project supporter. In response, Harris posted a statement online saying she was misquoted and does not support the Project: "The concept of providing ballot images to the public after running them through an intermediary program developed by David Dill (or anyone else!) is absurd and misses the point entirely. What is it about these guys that they just cannot RESIST inserting "An Expert" in between "The People" and "Our Ballots"?"

To be clear, VCC objections to the Transparency Project are as follows:Going from ridiculous to sublime, another expert was cited as a Project supporter, Harri Hursti, "who famously hacked into Diebold voting machines." Not just Diebold machines, but the exact equipment used here in Humboldt (as well as other models).

The T-S might have mentioned that while bending over backwards to once again congratulate the Registrar for a decision made nearly four years ago. Forgoing touch screen machines in favor of optical scanners was a false alternative. Both types of machines have been repeatedly discredited, and both types count in secret, requiring the public's blind trust without providing any rational basis for confidence in reported results. The Registrar's devotion to casting paper ballots is hollow if counting accuracy is not verifiable.

Please visit for links to recent media coverage of election integrity issues as well as our report on local election conditions, the forecast tool, and the sign-up form that will allow us to demonstrate there are enough local voters willing to hand-count to get the job done on election night.

Dave Berman is a founding member of the Voter Confidence Committee of Humboldt County. His blog is He resides in Eureka.

Opinions expressed in My Word pieces do not necessarily reflect the editorial viewpoint of the Times-Standard
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