Sunday, August 12, 2007

How To Forecast Labor, Cost and Time For Hand-Counting Paper Ballots

At the risk of being immodest, what I'm about to describe has the potential to greatly advance the hand-counted paper ballot (HCPB) movement in every community. Credit where it is due, let me first say that last November the Voter Confidence Committee (VCC) began working on the recently published Report On Election Conditions in Humboldt County, California. In the course of researching this report, I came in contact with Nancy Tobi of Democracy For New Hampshire (DNH). She is an amazing resource and an effective advocate for HCPB.

Shortly after the VCC report was first posted, DNH made a presentation that Nancy called to my attention. When I viewed it, something clicked for me. There on the pages was a step by step--SIMPLE--explanation for how many people would be needed to count ballots in a given amount of time. I copied the formula and started working with numbers representative of Humboldt. It was Ernie Stegeman who suggested making it dynamic in a spreadsheet. From there it only took me about 15 minutes.

Why is this so important?

Anybody who has ever tried to lobby local government for change knows the elected officials always want to know the cost, and in this case the other obvious questions are how long will it take to count, and how many people will be needed? As with most issues, there is a talking point meme that says hand counting will take too long or we can't get enough people. Now we have a concrete way to challenge these assumptions.

Hank Sims of The Journal got a sneak peek at the spreadsheet tool (.xls) and then published in his August 2 "Town Dandy" column:

Berman's suggestion: Ditch the machines and go to a pure hand-count of all votes cast. Initial twiddling with the numbers suggests that it wouldn't be all that time-consuming or costly -- and wouldn't you rather wait a few days and spend a little more for a trustworthy count?
On Thursday I submitted a letter to the editor of The Journal but I won't post that here just yet. I actually want to point out something I wish I had included in that letter. Even as Sims is saying basically, this is more feasible than you think, he also extends the faulty premise "wait a few days and spend a little more." Says who?

As presented by DNH, the first component of the formula is based on the amount of time allotted for counting. Different counties may allow counting until different hours of the night (11pm or midnight or whenever). Whatever this variable is set to, the needed number of counters adjusts accordingly. If the time allowed was three hours, the formula would calculate more counters needed than if five hours were allowed. The point is that there basically is no argument any more that it would take too long because the finish time could be stipulated. There is still the need to prove that enough People will step up and do the counting.

The VCC is currently expanding community outreach efforts, tabling at various times and places to interact with the public. We're promoting our report with a flier and asking people to sign up if they are willing to hand-count paper ballots on election night. I had a few interesting hours at the Eureka Co-Op on Saturday afternoon. Ernie and I collected about 30 names.

We don't have a target number yet for how many names we'd like. This is a function of wanting Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich to provide her official assumptions for the spreadsheet variables. With these numbers we would then have an official forecast that would add tangible elements to our fledgling campaign. I will report follow-ups in our attempt to get her to provide those numbers. We've been waiting a long time.

Now I know there are HCPB supporters all over the country. I hope some of these people will get their hands on the spreadsheet tool (.xls). It may be one of the best, most direct ways we have to take back our elections.


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Posted by Dave Berman - 11:10 PM | Permalink
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I have some personal experience with this, from counting ballots in Canada. There, this was a simple, painless procedure that was finished in less than an hour.


It won't work in the US.

In Canada, the Federal Election is separate from provincial elections. So you're only voting for one office - your MP, Member of Parliament - and choosing from among less than a dozen candidates.

In the US, we have a national but non-federal election. On the first Tuesday in November, we vote for President - and hundreds of other offices, from judges on down to dogcather. Plus, in some states, dozens of ballot initiatives.

If we continue this system, counting all those paper ballots would NOT be a trivial task.

Do we have to continue our system the way it is today? Of course not. Every state holds a primary election; sometimes two or three. We just had a school board election in parts of LA. Balloting happens several times a year in some jurisdictions.

We could go with a separate Presidential Election - the stakes are high enough that it might work. Or we could go with a federally-mandated uniform paper ballot for all jurisdictions.

I know, traditionally the running of local elections hasn't been a Federal concern, but I'm sure we could come up with a good excuse - how about national security?

Posted by Blogger Jeremy @ Aug 13, 2007, 1:22:00 PM
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Actually, hand counted paper ballots is not all that we want. We want a SECURE hand counted paper ballots system. There are many key procedures to make a hand counted paper ballots system secure.

A very important secure procedure for hand counted paper ballots is to have them all counted at the precinct level beginning immediately after the election and ending when the counting is done. Nancy Tobi's formula for this from New Hampshire is very helpful in determining how many counters would be needed.

However, the reason that hand counted paper ballots should be counted at the precinct level and immediately after the election is that keeping the ballots secure after they are transported or when the counting room is closed becomes very problematic.

Therefore, the New Hampshire formula should be used to determine how many people would be needed to finish the election counting in so many hours, perhaps within 3 to 8 hours after the election.

Once the number of people are determined, they can be recruited in many ways. But a fail-safe method of recruitment is from the jurisdiction's jury draw list. It is politically wiser not to require prospective jurors to serve as election ballot counters, but to make it possible for them to volunteer as an election counter instead of being as a juror, to the extent that election ballot counters are needed.

Jo Anne Karasek

State Coordinator of the Ohio Hand Counted Paper Ballots Initiative

Posted by Blogger Unknown @ Aug 17, 2007, 12:11:00 AM
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Jo Anne and Jeremy, thank you for your insights. I think we would all agree that hand-counting can be easier to implement under certain conditions more so than others.

I feel fortunate to live in Humboldt County, CA for many reasons, one of which is that we have an easier path to hand-counting than Los Angeles.

I would love to see the whole country hand-count, and I am presenting this spreadsheet tool for use everywhere. However, to achieve what I'm after, an engaged Humboldt community committed to working together to hand-count elections, I will focus my energy on that and tend to avoid talking about LA's prospects. Introducing the subject does nothing to advance or take away from our prospects here so to offer that connection is fallacious (Jeremy).

I agree with Jo Anne that the all volunteer army of counters is better than a conscripted one, but if it is required to make it happen then some system intertwined with jury duty should be considered.

Dave Berman

Posted by Blogger Dave Berman @ Aug 17, 2007, 8:48:00 PM
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