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Monday, November 10, 2008

elections are often surprisingly close

The classic Canadian example I usually use is the last Referendum on Quebec independence where it was 50.58% "No" to 49.42% "Yes".

There is another great example going on right now in the Minnesota senate race.
According to Daily Kos, "Today's latest results show [Democratic challenger Al Franken] is now trailing Republican incumbent Norm Coleman by 204 votes."

Wikipedia currently shows the tally at

Popular vote Coleman:1,211,562 Franken:1,211,356 Barkley:437,389

If you want that in percentages that's Coleman 41.988%, Franken 41.981%

That means if your voting machines have even a .01% error rate, they've already thrown the election. And the high-tech threat to Minnesota's optical mark-sense scanners? Dust.

Undecided Minnesota Senate Race Used Machines that Flunked Accuracy Tests - Wired - November 5, 2008

In an earlier posting, Wired writes

The problems occurred during logic and accuracy tests in the run-up to this year's general election, Oakland County Clerk Ruth Johnson disclosed in a letter submitted October 24 (.pdf) to the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC). The machines at issue are ES&S M-100 optical-scan machines, which read and tally election results from paper ballots.

Johnson worried that such problems -- linked tentatively to paper dust build-up in the machines -- could affect the integrity of the general election this week.

ES&S Voting Machines in Michigan Flunk Tests, Don't Tally Votes Consistently - Wired - November 3, 2008

Say what you will about human failure modes, but dust usually isn't one of them.

Given that
1. Elections are often surprisingly close
2. Integrity of the count is paramount (your vote must be correctly counted)
3. Machines have many failure modes
4. A paper count by humans can be open and easily verified and rechecked

Then the best option to ensure confidence in election results is: hand-counted paper ballots.

(I don't know whether the Minnesota recount will require hand-counts.)

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