29 April 2014

As of about 9 p.m. ET on Thursday, 316,476 votes had been counted in Virginia's Fifth District congressional race between incumbent bigotted xenophobe Virgil Goode and challenger Tom Perriello, with 158,562 going to Perriello and 157,914 to Goode, for a difference of 648 votes or 0.2 percent of the total.



According to a report on Charlottesville's NBC-29:

    "There is no 'automatic' or 'mandatory' recount. If the results differ by one percent or less, the losing candidate can formally request a recount in court. If the difference is less than half of a percentage point, the same candidate still has to make a request and the state will pay for it."

Two years ago Mr. Macaca, George Allen, lost a close senate race in Virginia, the last great Virginian rejection of racism before the defeat of McCain-Palin and the possible defeat of Goode. Allen chose not to request a recount. His campaign or supporters of it had engaged in widespread suppression tactics, including misleading calls and flyers and intimidation. It's possible that he preferred to avoid close scrutiny of the election because of how deep his dirty tricks ran. Or maybe he just decided he couldn't win. If Goode loses the initial count this time and chooses not to recount, the same question will haunt us. If Perriello loses the initial count, only requesting a recount would fit with the statements he has recently made about the importance of taking the time to be sure every vote is counted. But then, he is working with the Democratic Party which absolutely loves to concede, so anything's possible.



The interesting question is, if they do a recount, what in the world will the recounters do in order to maintain the charade that they are "recounting" something? I ask this not because I distrust the people doing the recount in any way, but because there simply isn't anything to recount. Most of the votes were cast on DRE machines, electronic machines. Unlike voting on a paper ballot, voting on a DRE does not leave behind any item that can be counted or recounted. The same NBC-29 story explains:

    "If and when a recount occurs, it's different every time. According to Iachetta, electronic ballots can be 're-counted' by re-reading the cards that hold the results or just by going over the statement of results again."

Even NBC was forced to put "re-counted" in quotes. The votes exist, if they exist, inside a machine. The machine spits out a number, and we all simply have to trust it. If the machine can be made to spit out a different number, that would be interesting, but it wouldn't help anything, because we'd have no basis on which to guess whether the first or second number was closer to an accurate count.



Now it could be discovered that some of the counts are impossible or improbable (machines have sometimes given candidates in various parts of the country more votes than there were voters, or reported that huge numbers of voters chose to vote in a local race and ignore a national one, etc.) Or it could be shown that a machine had been suspiciously tampered with, or that the data had been altered by an interested party. Or some innocent human error in processing the totals could be found. But aside from those possibilities, assuming everything seems to have worked perfectly, we actually have no possible way of knowing whether a machine count is accurate or not. As far as I know we have no exit polls here to help us either.



This probably means a couple of things. First, it probably means that a "recount" is not going to change the results dramatically, since most of the votes can't be recounted. Second, it might just mean that more people in Virginia come to grips with the need to replace our misguided techno-fetish for dysfunctional machines with paper ballots publicly counted at every polling place. In fact the Virginia Constitution requires the public counting of ballots, and DREs can't do that.



Now, some of the ballots in this contested race are paper. I voted early on a paper absentee ballot, as did a lot of other people, and others voted on provisional ballots on election day. All of those ballots could be carefully recounted by hand and the totals made public for each polling place. In most places, paper ballots are counted on optical scan machines, which are notoriously as unreliable as DREs, even when they aren't being jammed by wet ballots as happened in some parts of Virginia on Tuesday. The advantage of optical scan counting is that it leaves behind the paper ballots, which can be counted by hand if needed. But check out this report from the same NBC-29 story:

    "Paper ballots will most likely go through a tabulating machine again."

Are they serious? If the ballots are counted by hand in small numbers locally, and the totals posted publicly and added together, a count can be extremely reliable. If the ballots are counted by a machine, and the total comes out different from last time, which total do you use?



Other factors could come into play here, including late arriving absentee ballots or attempts by Goode's team to disqualify various people's provisional ballots. There is some chance, I think, that this will help wake us up to the need for universal registration. If we didn't make everyone jump through so many hoops in order to vote, and simply let everyone vote in the same way that we let everyone have a Social Security number, then scary tales about Mickey Mouse showing up at the polls wouldn't be taken seriously even on Fox News.



When the first count is finished, if either the winner or the loser has any suspicion that a recount could come closer to the truth, then they have a duty to insist on it, and to insist that it be taken seriously and done with the extreme care that we put into counting money or sports scores. Sadly, we just don't have an electoral system that will allow any of us to be sure of the outcome no matter how many times they "recount" it.