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 V.14 No.2 | January 13 - 19, 2005 

On Assignment

The Magical Mystery Voter Tour

Your never-ending election nightmare

Jeff Drew

It ain't over 'til the last vote's been counted; or, shall we say, recounted. At least, that's what the folks at Help America Recount proclaim. Now, you might be confused, because you thought that all the votes were already counted, and possibly already recounted after much of the post-election hype. But that's where you're wrong. That is, unless you think that imaginary votes should be counted along with real votes, and that, in some cases, real votes shouldn't be counted at all.

Unfortunately, that's what Sonja Elison of Help America Recount says is the case here in New Mexico, which carries the highest rate of presidential undervotes in the nation (we'll get back to this). The culprit seems to be certain types of voting machines used throughout the state, which have now proven to have some awfully dirty, or painfully incompetent, tricks up their sleeves. The only problem is, as is true of any magician worth his wand, we don't know how they pulled it off.

A recent analysis of the canvass report of the Nov. 2, 2004 presidential election by Help America Recount shows a frightening number of both undervotes and phantom votes in New Mexico. Undervotes, by the way, refer to ballots cast that have no recorded vote for president. Phantom votes are a bit scarier, and refer to when there are more votes recorded than were ballots cast. Because of the startling number of what seem to be misreported votes in New Mexico, HAR organizers are demanding that we do just what their title infers ... and fast.

When in low doses, undervotes are an expected part of every election, as it is plausible that some voters would chose not to vote for a presidential candidate, and still vote for other issues. However, when undervote rates exceed 2 percent (translating to one out of every 50 voters), Elison says that an investigation is usually in order. This is because research shows that 99.6 percent of voters are more likely to vote for a presidential candidate than for any other issue. New Mexico has an estimated undervote rate of 2.72 percent, but that number drastically increases in certain parts of the state. For instance, in Dona Aña County, 207 overseas absentee ballots were received, but none of them reported a presidential vote, which results in an undervote rate of 100 percent. And, one Bernalillo County precinct had a rate of 20.03 percent, with 594 ballots, 119 of which didn't report votes for president.

But it gets worse. The analysis shows that in areas with high Hispanic and Native American populations, the undervote rate was more severe than it was in primarily Anglo populations. Predominantly Native American precincts throughout the state had an undervote rate of 8.51 percent, while Hispanic precincts had a rate of 7.13 percent, and Anglo precincts a rate of 2.66 percent. What this data translates to, according to HAR, is that if you're Native American and live in New Mexico, there may be a one in 12 chance that your presidential vote wasn't counted, while if you're Hispanic and live in Bernalillo County and voted on Election Day, there may be a one in 11 chance that your presidential vote wasn't counted. For the entire state, if you voted on an electronic voting machine on Election Day, there's a one in 20 chance.

Phantom votes, as mentioned earlier, are a little harder to swallow, because there's no practical explanation for why they exist. Although there is a highly unlikely chance that all of the reported undervotes in the state actually occurred, there is still a chance that they happened. But phantom votes just appear out of thin air, and that's an act that would make even David Copperfield sweat. In New Mexico, there are a reported 10,836 phantom votes, over 2,000 of which are presidential. Again, Dona Aña County reflects some strange results, with one of their precincts reporting 107 absentee ballots, but 325 votes for president from those ballots. Taos County reported no overseas absentee ballots, yet declared 54 overseas absentee votes for president. And one Bernalillo County precinct reported 166 absentee ballots and 318 presidential votes. Precincts in nearly half of the counties in the state reported presidential votes that weren't associated with anyone's ballot.

If that's not bizarre enough, there are still further accounts of voting machines performing some questionable sleights of hand. In an Incident Report filed on the VoteProtect.org Hotline, dozens of examples of voting machine malfunctions are listed, all reported by concerned citizens. One such incident describes someone who was trying to vote for Richard Romero, but Heather Wilson's name kept getting marked, while just the opposite was reported on another machine. Still another report tells that when trying to vote for John Kerry, Constitution Party candidate Michael Peroutka's name was recorded. The list goes on, giving countless examples of machines switching votes or shutting down in the middle of sessions.

This seems to be especially true of those who voted straight Democrat. Apparently, machines sometimes allowed for all other issues to be marked accurately, while switching the presidential vote. Others would record Libertarian votes instead of Democratic ones, and some wouldn't allow for any votes to be cast at all—voters had to enter their choices by hand. Elison says that so far there have been no reports of this happening with folks who voted straight Republican.

And so the question is, with all of this confusion, why hasn't the state performed a recount yet? It's not for a lack of trying, at least on the part of some citizen activists and third party candidates. The effort to demand a recount in New Mexico was spurred by presidential candidates David Cobb (Green) and Michael Badnarik (Libertarian) in late November, and was immediately supported by HAR, who is now offering to pay all recount fees. The organization has also gathered 800 volunteers through MoveOn.org who are willing and ready to help with recount efforts. Yet, time and time again, progress has been stunted by the courts.

It was originally decided by the State Canvassing Board, comprised of Gov. Bill Richardson, Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Petra Maes (all Democrats, by the way), that there would be no recount. The primary reason given for their decision was that Cobb and Badnarik (who originally offered to pay the fees) hadn't deposited a sufficient sum to cover the cost of a recount. They did, however, deposit $114,000 prior to the board's decision, which is over 10 percent of the board's original cost estimate of $1.1 million, and all that was originally required of them to begin a recount effort. When it was discovered by the Board that the amount had already been deposited, the cost estimate rose to $1.4 million, and it was ordered that they pay the full sum within 36 hours in order for a recount to begin.

Unable to do so, Cobb and Badnarik then went to the New Mexico Supreme Court to request that the Board's decision be overruled, where they were turned down by one vote. Along with HAR, they have now concentrated their efforts with a jurisdiction of the State Court of Appeals, a process that will take weeks, if not months to complete, says the group's New Mexico coordinator Mitch Buszek. The only way to quicken the process is if Gov. Richardson decides to accept an offer made by HAR, which would allow for 10 percent or fewer voting machines in the state to be recounted, and which would reduce the time and expenses involved in a recount. Doing so would mean that recount efforts could begin immediately.

Until progress is made in either avenue, attorney John Boyd, who represented both Cobb and Badnarik in their hearing with the State Canvass Board, says that the best thing they can hope for now is for private citizens to go to the court on their own accord to express their concern. With the presidential ticket determined by slightly less than 6,000 votes in New Mexico, which is roughly 1 percent of the total vote, HAR organizers say that it is imperative to move forward with recount efforts, so that the integrity of the voting process is not compromised.

Even though the Electoral College vote was sealed last week in Congress, declaring once-and-for-all that George W. Bush will continue on Part II of his presidency, and the hope of changing the outcome of the election is no longer a reality, or even a faint glimmer, activists say that it is still necessary to ensure a system of checks and balances within the voting process. "The public needs to pay attention to how well they are being served with respect to the accuracy of the voting process," says Eric Elison, an inactive naval commander who volunteered this year with the Kerry/Edwards campaign.

To find out further details, visit www.helpamericarecount.org.

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