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If the poll leaders are ahead, call Bombay

April 3, 2004 in New Mexico Politics | Comments (0)

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In a discussion of outsourced American jobs with Colin Powell at a college in New Delhi last month, a student wisecracked that the United States could use a little technical assistance from India on vote counting. “You’ve got backward stuff,” the student said, to laughter and applause. The Washington Post story explained that voting in the world’s largest democracy is all electronic.

The New Dehli student might be on to something. Maybe a toll-free technical assistance number — outsourced, as most are now anyway, to Bombay or Calcutta — could help solve the continuous election night problems in Bernalillo and Sandoval Counties along with the less frequent miscounts in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba or Dona Ana Counties.

If someone from Bernalillo County, for instance, had been able to call Bangalore on election night in 2000, New Mexico might have been spared the embarrassment of being mentioned in the same sentence with Florida. It took two days for the Bernalillo County Clerk’s office to figure out that somebody had failed to click a box on a computer menu, disabling the straight-ticket-voter option on the county’s optical scanner. About 60,000 absentee ballots were in limbo.

The current standoff in Sandoval County, however, is a reminder that behind every technological problem is a human problem. It took more than six weeks to count the vote in a legislative race there two years ago. And in the September special election the fate of the State Permanent Fund amendment was in doubt for a week because of mistakes, among them transposed tallies in Sandoval County.

It’s clear from news accounts of public shouting matches that what Sandoval County Clerk Victoria Dunlap and the county commission need is a facilitator, not a techie. Most recently, Dunlap has refused to appear before the commission to discuss this year’s upcoming primary and general elections. She sent a memo requesting that all communication be in writing to her or her – yes — lawyer. There are some world-class anger resolvers in Dharamsala, but I don’t think they have an 800 number.

At least New Mexico is not diverted by high tech “computer error” excuses. The state apparently is a generation behind places like India and Ohio in voting technology. True, a couple of counties are trying out “touchscreen” machines, which are the new standard, but most New Mexicans still vote – early or on election day — by pushing buttons on “Shouptronic” machines dating from the 1980’s or, in 11 smaller counties, by feeding pencil-marked ballots into optical scanners. Absentee ballots, a separate problem, are counted on optical scanners.

The pushbutton voting machines have been reliable despite early controversy over their maker, R. F. Shoup Co., long since absorbed by others. County clerks and their staffs, apart from the few well publicized exceptions, know the machines and the election drill and get the vote counted accurately and on time. This happens to be the main duty of the elected county clerks, and most of them do it honestly.
There have been some terrible exceptions. Dona Ana County Clerk Ruben Ceballos last November was convicted of five criminal counts of violating the New Mexico Election Code. Rio Arriba County Clerk David Chavez and his chief deputy were convicted of fourth-degree felonies involving unlawful opening of a ballot box.

And against this backdrop, other noncriminal incidents arouse public suspicion. In 2000 and 1996, uncounted absentee ballots in Bernalillo County were found in boxes days after the election. In another case, a poll worker took a the results home over night. Add to this the infighting: Dunlap has fired three deputy clerks, and former Bernalillo County Clerk Judy Woodward fought so much with her election bureau director, Jaime Diaz, that he filed a discrimination complaint against her.

One solution to these voter-unsettling messes, would be to do away with the elected county clerks, replacing them with a super efficient centralized election authority consistent with the trend of consolidating power in Santa Fe. No, no, says State Election Bureau Director Denise Lamb, that is not the answer. It is local administration and triple-audit canvassing that keeps New Mexico elections from getting stolen by one group or another.

The machines are not the problem, she says. “If we voted with black and white marbles, someone would figure out a way to cheat,” she says.

Lamb’s human-focused view is respected. She is the new president of the National Association of State Election Directors, many of whom are embroiled controversy over the big conversion to touchscreen voting machines. A vocal group of high-tech skeptics, dismissed by some as conspiracy theorists, has been filing lawsuits and going to the media with the idea that the next election can be stolen by hackers and unscrupulous programmers.

The opponents have not received much attention in New Mexico. Their specific target is the Diebold Co., whose c.e.o. is a vocal supporter of the relection of President Bush. Under Lamb and her predecessor and advisor, Hoyt Clifton, the state went directly from the old lever-operated mechanical machines to the pushbutton electronic machines, avoiding the punch cards that plagued Florida with “hanging chads” and such. There are only a handful of touchscreen machines being used here, and they are not Diebolds. Further, in the New Mexico system, machines are never interconnected, and the totals tapes are physically removed from the machines and delivered in person to the county officies on election night.

So for now the suggestion of the New Delhi student is not really relevant here, although some wayward clerks might find it useful to blame someone in India for their problems. And by the time New Mexico catches up electronically, all those outsourced jobs in Bombay, Calcutta and Bangalore will be in China.