When recounts count

12/26/2004

One of these days the mightiest democracy in the world may have to go back to school to learn how to conduct elections. In a closely divided electorate, flaws in the process that once could have been shrugged off no longer can be.

In Washington state, the protracted gubernatorial recount shows not only how important it is for citizens to vote, but also how important it is that every vote be counted. After a hand recount, Democrat Christine Gregoire holds a lead of 130 votes over Republican Dino Rossi out of 2.9 million votes cast. This reverses the results after a machine recount, which had put the GOP candidate 42 votes ahead.

The recount total includes a batch of 723 never-before-counted absentee ballots in largely Democratic King County. The state supreme court has held that a recount may correct errors discovered during the process. One wag was prompted to say, "Nobody's gotten poisoned here," a reference to the disputed election in Ukraine.

The long recount battle is arousing political enmity on both sides. Republicans, who are not usually on the losing side of such close elections, objected strongly to counting the 723 absentee ballots, but as Justice Susan Owens of the Washington high court commented: "You're looking at it from the point of view of the winner or the loser. Shouldn't we be looking at it from the point of view of the voter?"

If the legal maneuvering does not result in a certification of one of the candidates by Jan. 12, outgoing Gov. Gary Locke might be asked to stick around until the issue is resolved. However, he has said he does not want to do that. The long gubernatorial count is having a negative impact on Washingtonians' belief that their state has a reputation for clean politics.

Unfortunately, Americans tend to lose interest in recount issues as soon as an election is called, whether that call is accurate or not. The result is that badly needed fixes in an obsolescent election system never do get made. That in turn leaves a system that is open to unintentional error or, in some cases, intentional tampering with the votes.

We have said repeatedly on these pages that fixing the election system is vital to the functioning of democracy. In Ohio there are still unexplained anomalies in the Nov. 2 election results, allegations that minority voters in some polling places were forced to wait long periods of time to exercise their right to vote, and numerous instances of scanner machine breakdowns that delayed the count.

The latest shake-up of the board of elections staff in Lucas County has never been adequately explained, which means, in effect, that past errors may simply be repeated in future election cycles.

Too much error is creeping into a cumbersome and complex election system. As a result, many observers at home and abroad are beginning to believe and sometimes slyly suggest that the United States, like many Third World countries with little experience in democratic elections, may need the help of foreign observers. At any rate, there simply is no excuse for the miserable performance of much of the American electoral system.