31 March 2014

In 2004, New Mexico once again led the nation in Presidential undervote rate. Undervotes are ballots cast without a vote for President, and New Mexico had 21, 084 of them – 2.78% of the total ballots cast last November or one out of every 36 voters. New Mexico Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron seems surprisingly untroubled by undervotes, commenting after the election that she doesn't "spend a lot of time on undervote issues, I'm just speculating that some voters are just not concerned with the presidential race." [1]



I never found this very convincing. However, the recent testimony from the head of Automated Election Services (AES), the company that provides election services to most of the counties in New Mexico, may offer a more persuasive explanation.



The analysis [2] of the certified results of the New Mexico election that I undertook with Ellen Theisen of VotersUnite.org revealed that more than 80% of New Mexico’s undervotes were recorded (or, more accurately, not recorded) on Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines with the main culprits being the Sequoia Advantage and the Danaher Shouptronic - both “push button” electronic machines.



Particularly alarming were cases like Taos County, where optically scanned paper ballots were used in early and absentee voting, and DREs were used on Election Day. In early and absentee voting in Taos County, the presidential undervote rate was well below 1%, while on Election Day the undervote rate soared to almost 10%! Or San Miguel County, Precinct 14 where every single person who voted early (on paper) voted for one presidential candidate or another while 27% of their neighbors who voted electronically on Election Day apparently didn’t vote for any of them.



In a recent deposition, Terry Rainey, CEO of AES explained that “if you go to a [push button] DRE machine and you walk in, the first thing you're presented with is a list of political parties, and if I …say, yes, I'm a Democrat, and I push the button for Democrat, then that activates vote choices for all the Democratic candidates.” Fair enough, most states in the country allow for “straight party voting”.



But Rainey went on to explain, “if I decided I wanted to vote for Senator Kerry, and I push that button again, I have deselected my vote.  And if I'm not aware that that's the case and I push the cast vote button, then I have lost my vote.” He went on to speculate “that's why I believe it's so much higher in DRE counties. You don't see that…high level of undervoting in primary elections where the straight party option doesn't exist.”



So if you were an occasional voter, or a voter who had registered for the first time (there were 187,000 new voters in New Mexico in 2004), or a voter with limited language or computer skills, or for any reason didn’t understand how the straight party option functioned, you could easily have erased your own vote.



The presidential contest in New Mexico was decided by less than 6,000 votes and of course there is no way of knowing how many of New Mexico’s 21, 084 undervotes resulted from this appalling design flaw. New Mexico’s presidential undervote rate in 1996 was 4.46%. In 2000, like 2004, it was nearly 3%. Perhaps if the Secretary of State were more concerned about undervotes, this problem could have been identified earlier.



1. http://www.knoxstudio.com/shns/story.cfm?pk=MISCOUNT-FINAL-12-22-04&cat=AN
2. The report and other analysis of the 2004 New Mexico election can be found at http://www.votersunite.org/info/newmexicophantomvotes.asp