Will the outcome of the Baltimore County executive race reflect the true will of the voters?

There are a couple of oddities about the 2000 election in Florida that come to mind now that Baltimore County elections officials are preparing to recount by hand the nearly 85,000 ballots cast in the Democratic primary for county executive, which at the moment has Del. Johnny Olszewski leading state Sen. Jim Brochin by a mere nine votes. It’s not just the closeness of the race — Mr. Olszewski is up by .01 percent, almost the exact same margin that made George W. Bush the victor in Florida and the nation’s 43rd president. It’s that the same kinds of irregularities that may have made the final outcome in Florida not match the true will of the voters on that election day may have still, if to a lesser extent, played a role in Baltimore County.

We will not, thankfully, witness county election officials assessing the various iterations of incompletely punched chads — the gradations being hanging, swinging, tri-, pregnant and dimpled, in case you’ve blocked out that particular memory. All of those instances arose from voters failing to completely punch out the little bits of paper next to their preferred candidate, meaning the tabulating machines couldn’t read them — and leading to litigious debates about a voter’s true intention.

We don’t have punch card voting in Maryland (practically no one does after the Florida debacle), but the optical scan system we now use isn’t immune to similar problems. People sometimes fail to fully fill in the bubble next to their favored candidate’s name, preventing the scanner from reading it and producing what’s known as an “undervote.” Other times, voters fill in more circles than they’re allowed (say, two candidates for county executive), resulting in an “overvote.” (The collective category for these two types of errors is known as “residual votes” in the biz.) We already know that in at least a few cases, people filled in more than one bubble for county executive but crossed one out or otherwise indicated which was their true preference, but there will doubtless be others that are more ambiguous.

We will also, fortunately, not be faced with anything so dastardly as the infamous “butterfly ballot” that apparently confused some thousands of people in Palm Beach County into voting for third-party candidate Pat Buchanan rather than Democrat Al Gore. The Baltimore County ballot design was straightforward. But that doesn’t mean it’s immune to voter mistakes. Voters do sometimes accidentally skip over a race altogether, and Maryland’s scanners aren’t set up to reject ballots with undervotes. (They do spit back ballots with over-votes and instruct voters to ask for a new ballot to correct the problem, but a voter can override the message and submit the flawed ballot again, which some do.)

In some respects, the electronic touch-screen voting machines Maryland adopted after the 2000 election were superior in this regard. They did not allow for overvotes, and because of the way they presented each race and prompted voters to check over their work, they offered some safeguard against accidental undervotes. The major flaw of those machines, besides theoretical questions about whether they could be hacked, was that they were not equipped to provide any sort of paper trail. Having a meaningful recount like the one set to begin Thursday in Baltimore County (and likely soon in other extremely close races around the state) was simply not possible.

This election showed the limitations of our paper ballot system, in that two deceased candidates and one who tried desperately to get off the ballot remained on it, but it also demonstrated the need to be able to double-check the results. Although we endorsed Mr. Olszewski in the primary, we fully support Mr. Brochin’s decision to request a full manual recount. It’s worth the extra time and effort to make sure the result reflects the will of the voters.

Come what may, voters need to take a lesson from this situation. Overall, the kind of system Maryland employs is one of the best in terms of accurately capturing voters’ intentions, according to various studies of the issue, but any system is only as good as the people using it. Awareness of the possibility of a ballot to be counted improperly or not counted is a major factor, too. A 2010 paper from the University of Maryland analyzing the effect of new voting systems in Florida and Michigan adopted in time for the 2004 presidential election found not only that switching to better voting systems made a difference in reducing residual votes but also that the error rate dropped between those two elections even when the same systems were used. The knowledge of what happened in 2000 in Florida evidently made people more careful four years later.

So when you go to the polls this fall, Maryland voters, read the instructions on your ballot. Poll workers, remind voters what to do if they make mistakes. If the scanner rejects your ballot, don’t hit override. Ask for help. You never know when your ballot will be the one that makes the difference.

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