Thursday, February 09, 2017

Back To The Future IV: The Dallas County Election Canvass

Dallas County may need these guys to fix their election results.

The Des Moines Register reported yesterday that 5842 absentee ballots had not been included in the county's canvass report to the state. That was 13% of the total Dallas County vote, and a third of the absentee vote. Reaction has been swift and strong, with Iowa Starting Line's Pat Rynard calling for the resignation of auditor Julia Helm (who was just elected last November but was a long time election office staffer before that).

Aside from the mistake itself, the legal question is how to amend the state canvass to include those 5842 votes "count" on the permanent historic record. Based on my experience, that may not be easy or even possible without charging the flux capacitor to 1.21 jiggawatts, getting the DeLorean up to 88, and going back to the day before the canvass.
Johnson County made a similar mistake, which was much smaller and discovered much sooner, in 2004. At the time, we were told by the Secretary of State's office that the state canvass deadline was absolute and the votes could not be counted.

I also found some small canvass discrepancies in 2006, while researching turnout by county. Two small counties appeared to have entered their total voter registration in a space where they should have entered the total number of votes cast. (The actual vote counts were correct, but this created the statistical illusion of 100% turnout and an absurdly high number of under votes.) Again, I was told at the time that the state canvass was absolute, permanent and final.

The 2016 election calendar required counties to hold their canvass on Monday, November 14 or Tuesday the 15th. The deadline to file for a recount was the 17th or 18th, three days post-canvass. Canvass reports were then due to the Secretary of State by Monday, November 21, and the state canvass was due to be completed by December 5.

I personally think it would be best to find a way to get the Dallas County votes on the final official record. I'm not a lawyer, but that might be hard. The question is: how do you allow for the correction of a serious but apparently honest mistake, without simultaneously opening cans of worms that leave election results in limbo forever?

The other big question is did how nobody - office staff, campaigns, the news media, or election returns geeks - noticed that Dallas County's absentee ballot totals were implausibly low until February?

The Secretary of State's office was frequently updating absentee ballot numbers by county in the run-up to election day. Their last report shows 18,527 Dallas County absentee ballots returned. The canvass report shows Dallas County with 12,566 absentee votes in the presidential race.

Compare that to similar sized Pottawattamie County, which saw 18,108 absentees returned and reported 17,980 absentee votes for president, a much more plausible ratio and a much more typical ratio. I mean, you get SOME absentee ballots that can't be counted, and SOME people who skip the top of the ballot contest, but not a third of the returned ballots.

The auditor's office should have caught it, of course. But if we had a functional and sufficiently staffed journalism system, whoever was assigned the Number Crunching Story (which professionals used to do but only bloggers write anymore) would have seen it. Campaign staffers obsessively track request and return numbers, yet no one staring at a VAN report in the week between election night and the canvass caught it either.

And if it had been caught before the canvass it would have been much easier to fix.

Flashing back to our own experience in 2004: As you recall the national race, and the Iowa race, were both razor-thin that cycle. Iowa was decided by about 4000 votes, so every little advantage counted.

Our office was blindsided the day before the election by an unprecedented, and thankfully as yet unrepeated, mass challenge of absentee ballots led by one of the local Republicans. Over 2000 ballots were challenged, many on spurious grounds, in an effort that was so over the top that the law actually got changed in 2007 to narrow the reasons for which ballots could be challenged.

The absentee room is confusing enough as it is, and on top of normal confusion we had this extra layer of contentiousness. (The absentee room is part of my job now but wasn't in 2004.)

To make the long story shot, a batch of challenged and provisional ballots, 121 to be precise, got checked and were determined to be OK. They were then set aside to get counted. Someone fumbled the ball and didn't get them opened and fed through the machine. Once the canvass was finished and reported to the state, and the recount period had passed, we started cleaning up... and found them.

Then-auditor Tom Slockett  wanted to get the votes counted, so we contacted the Secretary of State's office. We were instructed that since the canvass was already complete and the canvass deadline had passed, we were not legally able to count the votes. Slockett ignored the instructions and did it anyway, calling the second canvass a "Report Of Ballot Information." There is still a discrepancy of 121 total voters between the official 2004 state canvass and the Johnson County canvass. Hopefully, the Secretary of State and Dallas County find a better way to fix the records this time.

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