Tally Against the Machine

DIY Vote Counting

Raise your hand if you think, without a shred of doubt, that your vote will be counted.

Tailpipe sees a lot of unraised hands. A lot of doubtful looks. Florida voters are, of course, oft-snakebitten in the voting booth, without even looking back to the 2000 fiasco of hanging chads. There was that congressional election in Sarasota two years ago, when 18,000 voters went to the polls and, in one of the most hotly contested campaigns of the year, apparently didn't vote for either candidate. This was, in official election verbiage, an "undervote," though for supporters of Democratic candidate Christine Jennings, loser by 369 votes, it was more like "we wuz robbed." Then there was the inexplicable lack of support for John Kerry in 2004 in heavily Democratic Broward and Palm Beach counties that probably delivered the state to George Bush.

Tailpipe could go on, with all the glitches and voting anomalies that have cropped up since electronic voting machines were introduced to the state after 2002. Sure, most of it probably amounts to nothing but Election Day minutiae and fodder for conspiracy theorists. But the important thing is that, between the Florida breakdowns and Election Day shenanigans in other states, a lot of people no longer have faith in an electronic voting system.

Last week, some Broward County citizens — as well as volunteers from nine other Florida counties — decided to do something about it. They participated in what may have been the first citizen exit poll in America, with nonprofessional data gatherers buttonholing voters as they left the polls and rerecording their votes.

The Broward volunteers for Project Vote Count — about 20 of them, including Democrats, Republicans, and at least one Green Party affiliate, all manning tables outside of the official voting sites — ran the poll just like an official election. Voters were invited to fill out voting "affidavits," which were then dropped into sealed boxes. As many as 75 percent of the voters in seven targeted precincts agreed to share their voting information. The next day, volunteers began the slow, surprisingly complex process of tallying the votes.

Some volunteers — a diverse group of five, young and middle-aged, infused with a palpable sense of high purpose — gathered in the New Times conference room. They slit the tape of one sealed box, clearly a historic moment for them, and spread the paper affidavits on the table. Then they began to organize the affidavits by party and candidate. The results from that precinct, in Coral Ridge, with a sampling of about 25 percent of the total who voted, were shockingly out of whack with the numbers recorded by the Board of Elections. For example, John McCain scooped up 50 percent of the Republican vote in the precinct, though he registered only 21 percent in the exit poll, while Hillary Clinton scored 59.5 percent from the official poll, 45 percent from the exit affidavits.

For one volunteer, it was a gotcha moment. "In my opinion, it's rigged," said David Wieldt, examining the results. "Look at this. Hillary got a boost of 15 percent."

In fact, it was too small a sample with which to make sweeping inferences, Wieldt conceded a few minutes later.

The group won't issue final results until the end of this week, after the county's official numbers come out — because, Project Vote Count organizers say, they don't want the Board of Elections to tweak its results to compensate for the exit poll findings. If there's a big disparity — comparable to those early Coral Ridge findings — exit pollsters will know that the machines once again misfired.

Why should ordinary people like these go through this exercise? Why not leave it to the pros?

Ellen Brodsky, a longtime voting-rights activist and coordinator of the Broward effort, ticks off the reasons. "First of all, there are no auditing procedures in Florida," she says. "There's no way to check the results of an electronic vote. Broward County has a history of extremely flawed elections. Then there's the iVotronic touchscreen machines that we've been using. They're very cheaply engineered."

And the pros? Where were they? Not in Broward County on January 29.

Those iVotronics, by the way, manufactured in the Philippines by Omaha-based Election Systems & Software, are on their way out. As of next August, Broward will use not touchscreens but "optical scanners," also manufactured by ES&S. (Though the new machines produce paper backup records, they have their own problems, including a demonstrable hackability by would-be election stealers.)

The idea for Project Vote Count originated with Mark Adams, a Tampa-area lawyer who established a website to record citizen findings (www.projectvotecount.com) and called on volunteers from other states to participate. A federal court ruling in 2006 allowed citizens' polling groups to set up closer to polling places than the 100 feet designated for electioneering, easing the way for Project Vote Count volunteers, who plan to be in at least one other state, Texas, for its primary next month.

"Stay tuned," Brodsky says. "It's just the start."

Maybe it's the start of a movement to abandon high-priced, glitch-prone electronic hardware in favor of the old reliable way of counting votes: citizens sitting around a table with stacks of paper ballots.

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