Why We Don't Hand Count Ballots

San Francisco is providing a great lesson in why we do not hand count ballots. Remember, this story is about a relatively low turnout election with a short ballot. Imagine a presidential election that had a much longer ballot. As I explained to a group of students the other day, hand counting 1 million ballots in a city, with 20 races, means counting 20 million distinct choices.

I would also point out it is pretty clear from the story that the County will be counting ballots not cast by voters. Here is what the story says:

A 2006 test by the state showed that the ES&S equipment used in San Francisco was unable to read some ballots that were marked in anything other than dark pencil or black or dark-blue ink. When the city was unable to bring in a replacement system in time for Tuesday’s election, Secretary of State Debra Bowen reluctantly certified the ES&S machines, but with conditions that slowed the vote-counting process dramatically.

In years past, voters marked their ballots in ink and then fed them into a machine at the polling place that electronically tallied the results and stored them in the machine’s memory pack. When the polls closed, one team of deputies picked up the ballots at each polling place and took them to Pier 29 for preliminary processing. Another team grabbed the memory packs and took them to a nearby modem center, often a police station, where those results could be electronically transmitted to the election center in the basement of City Hall.

But if the machines couldn’t be trusted to read the ballots properly, there was no way to tell if the information in the memory packs was accurate, so Bowen banned the use of the packs. Instead, each ballot had to be individually inspected to ensure that pencil or the proper ink was used. Then the ballots had to be put through one of the four vote-counting machines at City Hall.

So instead of dealing with one memory pack from each of the city’s 580 precincts, with the votes already counted, election officials will be forced to hand-check more than 100,000 ballots, then run them through the counting machines.

In short, the story suggests that election officials will check the ballots and FIX any ballot that does not have the correct markings.