I felt a little bad about poking fun at Adams County Auditor Nancy McBroom’s quote in the Seattle P-I, so I thought I’d give her a call and chat about the election. As one might expect, she turned out to be articulate, friendly and informative.
The election has already been hashed out ad infinitum, so there wasn’t any breaking news she could add to the discussion. But she did elaborate on the circumstances behind Adams County’s failure to match signatures on provisional ballots. In the past, provisional voters have always been treated like regular polling place voters, with the exception that their ballots weren’t counted until voter eligibility could later be verified. That means provisional voters sign into the poll books like everybody else; and since poll book signatures are never matched before counting the ballot, neither were provisional signatures.
According to Nancy, with passage of legislation bringing Washington into compliance with the Help Americans Vote Act (HAVA), this was supposed to change, and starting with the November 2004 election provisional signatures were to be matched just like those on absentee ballots. Nancy confirmed that this was not done in Adams County. (Nor, apparently, in Stevens, Walla Walla, and Whitman counties.)
Nancy didn’t explain why Adams County failed to comply with the new statute, but she assured me it would never happen again… since all future elections in Adams County will be conducted entirely by mail. In any case, Nancy didn’t seem particularly concerned that her staff’s failure to comply with the new statute created much opportunity for fraud. Adams is a small county, and according to Nancy, everybody knows everybody, what they’re up to, who’s getting married, who’s getting divorced, and all the other usual gossip. When you sign into the poll book at Adams County’s single polling place, chances are the old lady behind the table knows you.
That’s right, for 6,477 registered voters Adams County has a lone polling place in Othello, serving four precincts; the other 27 precincts were already vote-by-mail. And Nancy says that Adams is moving to an all vote-by-mail system because they are finding it too expensive and too difficult to find and train enough people to staff their single polling place. The old ladies are getting older, and just don’t have the stamina to last those 12-hour shifts.
Compare that to King County, with over 3000 poll workers operating 540 polling places and 2,616 precincts for 1,082,406 registered voters. And so I asked Nancy to do exactly that, and comment on the controversy surrounding the performance of King County Elections. After a brief pause and a nervous laugh, Nancy described it as “unfortunate, but not surprising” given the large number of voters. She went on to say that King County Elections had problems before Dean Logan came in, and that “it’s hard to wave your wand or twitch your nose and fix everything at one time,” but she expressed confidence that given the necessary time, they would.
Many Republicans have called for Dean Logan to be fired, and some — like EFF President Bob Williams — have even said that he should be “jailed.” But at least on the subject of provisional ballots, it’s hard to scapegoat Logan in light of the problems in other counties. King County’s procedures regarding the handling of provisional ballots fully complied with state and federal law, and they instructed their staff accordingly; unfortunately poll workers did not always follow or enforce the procedures, resulting in a relatively small number of provisional ballots being improperly canvassed (compared to percentages in Adams, Stevens, Walla Walla and Whitman.)
Nancy, on the other hand, issued procedures and instructions that clearly failed to comply with the law, and yet nobody is asking for her to be imprisoned or forced to resign. Nor should they.
In both Adams and King, mistakes were made… mistakes that should be fixed, but which had little if any impact on the election considering the fact that the vast majority of these provisional ballots would have been counted anyway had they been properly canvassed.
If anything, the news about mishandled provisional ballots in pro-Rossi, Eastern Washington counties merely reinforces my impression that the only thing extraordinary about this election was its extraordinary closeness. None of this is evidence of fraud or corruption or gross incompetence, but rather the normal and random distribution of human errors to which human beings are prone. Of course we can and should do a better job, but until somebody proves to me that any of these errors likely changed the outcome of this election, I’ll remain comfortable with the results.