Thursday, January 18, 2007

Time to Doff the Tin Foil - No Suspicious Undervote in NC-08

Unless you've been in seclusion or you've been living under a rock, you've heard about the alarmingly high undervote rate in Florida's 13th Congressional District race. According to The San Francisco Chronicle piece linked above via CommonDreams, the undervote of somewhere around 15% in Sarasota County means that close to 18,000 people voted for other races, but failed to select a choice for the Jennings/Buchanan race. Unlike North Carolina, Florida does not require a paper trail for its touch screen machines. There are several theories floating around as to what happened to those 18,000 votes, but with no paper trail, it is difficult, if not impossible to verify the count from the machine.

Now, conspiracy theories are cropping up surrounding the 4.2% Mecklenburg County undervote in the 8th Congressional race between Larry Kissell and Robin Hayes. It started with an email going around with lots of THESE and quite a few of !!!!!!! these. According to the author of the email the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections was negligent in its execution of the 3% eye-hand recount performed on November 29, 2006. The author also claims that there is an unprecedented undervote in Mecklenburg County for the 8th Congressional District race. The undervote rate of 4.2% is unprecedented in this race for Mecklenburg County, however, in light of circumstances surrounding November's elections, it is not surprising, shocking or significant and all the CAPITAL LETTERS and !!!!! exclamation points!!!! in the world will not change that fact.

Why address this publicly? The email has had broad enough distribution that it deserves to be addressed publicly. Not only that, diaries are showing up on Daily Kos, Democratic Underground and now BlueNC. A new web site asserting this claim also exists. It isn't my intention to call out any one person or to try and embarrass someone, therefore I'm not addressing the author of this email or the web site by name.

Another reason to address this publicly is the spread of faulty data that is now getting wider distribution. A couple of days ago, Kirk Ross brought our attention to a writer who is spreading confusion by using a completely inaccurate undervote total for North Carolina's 8th Congressional District. Michael Collins has a post at Scoop Independent News, and it was taken to Crooks and Liars by Nicole Belle. In this article Collins claims that the undervote percentage in the 8th Congressional race in Mecklenburg County was over 15%. I'll refute his numbers later in this post.

The most important reason to address this publicly is that there are valid complaints with election procedures and results in some states. Any time a false claim is made or a problem created where none exists, it dilutes the importance of other, more valid claims and takes attention and possibly resources away from where they are most needed.

What is an undervote?

An undervote occurs when a ballot is cast and the voter either intentionally or inadvertently does not vote in a race on the ballot. Undervote rates tend to increase the further down the ballot the race is located. Undervoting is to be expected, but at the top of the ballot any undervote over 2% should at least get a nod of attention. How much over 2% is acceptable depends on which race sits at the top of the ticket and any special circumstances surrounding the vote. Last year, in Mecklenburg County there was an undervote of 4.2% in the 8th Congressional race, which sat at the top of the ballot.

Today, I hope to lend some perspective to the analysis others have given and I hope to correct the inaccuracies being spread by Michael Collins and any others who are using faulty data. To understand this post, you might need to follow the links. I have provided my raw data, but have also linked to the data provided by the Mecklenburg County board of Elections. I know some of you will want to do your own calculations.

The Email

If you're on as many political email lists as I am, you've probably seen this email. It includes an exchange between an observer of the Mecklenburg County recount and Bev Harris of Blackbox voting. You will find a redacted version of the email at this link. You will find the email author's raw data at this link.

To summarize, the author of the email makes these claims:

* There is an unprecedented, suspicious undervote in Mecklenburg County, especially in the 8th Congressional race

* No other down-ballot races had a higher undervote rate than the 8th District with the congressional race being outperformed by all other down-ballot races.

* It is the FIRST time all down-ballot races have had a lower undervote rate than the top of the ticket race.

The author of the email is wrong on all counts. There was a partisan down-ballot race that had a higher undervote than the 8th Congressional District race. Kissell shared 20 of 29 precincts with the County Commission District 4 race, which most would consider a down-ballot race. The author chose instead to include in his comparison a county commission race that shared only two precincts with the 8th Congressional District. In comparing only shared precincts, the 8th CD had an undervote rate of 4.3% and the County Commission District 4 race had an undervote rate of 5%. Raw data for this can be found here.

The author's excitement over the fact that it's the first time this has happened deserves some perspective. In 2004 the sheriff was not running for re-election and none of the other races that shared precincts with the 8th CD had opposition. The only races that provide any reasonable comparison were the 2002 elections for sheriff, County Commission District 4 and NC House District 100. Making this claim based on a comparison which includes only a few races from one year makes the claim that it, "NEVER BEFORE HAPPENED", a little weak. Actually, it makes it a lot weak.

The following is a quote from the email about the author's experience during the recount procedings.
I was present for the manual hand recount of the 3% of the precincts in Mecklenburg, but the recount procedures I witnessed where NOT appropriate. First of all even though I was an observer I was NOT permitted to view the paper reams that where being counted. Although this seems the defeat the purpose of having a observer the BOE officials insisted that the reams where confidential and would only me, OR the campaign attorney to view the tapes.
The only people allowed to view the tapes where BOE employees and they where given instructions that virtually guaranteed they would produce the same results of the machine count.
While I did not attend the recount itself, I did call the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections to ask an official about their recount procedures. I did not ask for a formal statement, so will not give a direct quote, however I do know this person attended the recount and is very familiar with the procedure. I will request a formal statement if my explanation does not suffice.

First, my understanding is that none of the machines involved in the eye-hand recount showed a significant difference from the machine tally when counted by hand. If there was a difference, it is my understanding the tape was examined to see if it could be determined whether human error caused the difference in count. If they could determine where the mistake was made on the tape, and the tape then verified the machine count, the tape was not recounted. There was nothing found during the process that indicated a problem with any of the machines.

The other issue the author takes with the recount procedures is that he was not allowed to examine the tape. North Carolina election law can be ambiguous on some points, but a reasonable interpretation of G.S. 163-182.2 (3)(PDF - pg. 172) might explain why the author wasn't allowed to examine the tapes. It reads :
Any member of the public wishing to witness the vote count at any level shall be allowed to do so. No witness shall interfere with the orderly counting of the official ballots. Witnesses shall not participate in the official counting of official ballots.
An observer or witness is just that, an observer. As far as I'm aware, an observer is not entitled to any special privileges just because he or she is from a campaign. Examining the tapes might be construed as interfering with the orderly counting of the official ballot. I'm not a lawyer or judge, but this statute could easily be interpreted - and may already have been interpreted to prevent witnesses from touching, examining or hovering over the official counters while they touch and examine the tapes. It appears to me, the author's complaint isn't with the Mecklenburg Board of Elections on this point, but with North Carolina's election laws.

I understand why tapes should be examined and I understand why the observer might want to see for himself what the tape says, but the employees of the different boards are required to follow the law.

As I mentioned above, I'm not writing this to pick on anyone or to call anyone out. However, the data that the author of the email used is inaccurate and incomplete. Sensationalizing a 4.2% undervote when prior undervotes have been just over 2% is not in the best interest of the candidate and it certainly isn't in the best interest of the people who spend many hours investigating claims like this. Their time should be spent on legitimate issues.

The Web Site

The author of the email and the owner of the web site are not the same person. I don't doubt the sincerity of the owner of the site, but the data given to back up his claim that there is an aberrant undervote is sketchy(Precinct 205 counted twice) and simply does not do the job.

The site gives a few graphs and claims the undervote was 4%. More specifically it is 4.2%.

The following is a summary of the site owner's questions:

* If the undervote is attributed to voter dissatisfaction, why did it stop at the county line?

* Why did the voter dissatisfaction "arise sui generis in 2006"?

* Why did voter dissatisfaction not extend to candidacies lower on the ballot?

Answering the first question is easy. Republicans voted in other races, but did not vote for Robin Hayes. If you look at shared precincts, the Republican candidate in the county commission race came within two votes of Robin Hayes' total. It's hard to imagine that a relatively unknown candidate from a down-ballot race who lacks the power of incumbency, could come within two votes of a popular, well-known congressman. The NC House race between Hal Jordan and Jim Black isn't a fair comparison with Jim Black's ethics challenges. However, Hal Jordan had about 700 more votes than Robin Hayes in their shared precincts.

If you look at overall percentage of votes for these Republican candidates across their respective districts, Robin Hayes received the lowest percentage of votes of any of the Republicans with shared precincts and he is the only Republican incumbent with high name recognition.

Also, the NCGOP ran an aggressive ad campaign in Mecklenburg County to try to flip control of the county commission. This ad campaign did not extend beyond the county's borders and should at least help explain why Republicans would turn out to vote for the county commission, state house and sheriff races while their overall dissatisfaction gave them a reason to withhold their vote from Robin Hayes.

You would have to have spent the last year under a rock or in a cave to not understand the escalation of voter dissatisfaction that has built over the past year. Why did this wave not occur in 2004 or wait until 2008? Like I said, rock or cave, if you were not politically aware of what was going on, I'm not going to waste ink rehashing it here.

The final question posed asks why voter dissatisfaction did not extend to down-ballot races. Well, North Carolinians might not all be the brightest bulbs in our respective packs, but most of us understand that our county commissioners, state house reps and our sheriffs don't have a thing to do with the mess in Washington.

Michael Collins Articles

The articles linked above written by Michael Collins are particularly disturbing. First, it appears that Mr. Collins is advocating that Mecklenburg County's tapes be used to prove that Sarasota County's machines are faulty. If the problem is in the programming and Sarasota's machines were faulty or tampered with, recounting the results in Mecklenburg County will not prove anything. He completely ignores the fact that the 3% eye-hand recount performed in Mecklenburg County resulted in zero added votes and did not indicate any problems with the machines.

There is a bigger problem with his article, however. Collins either intentionally uses an inflated undervote figure to make Mecklenburg County's undervote appear more sensational, or he has no idea how to figure the undervote from the iVotronics returns.

In stating that Mecklenburg County's undervote is greater than 15% he failed to exclude all paper absentee, curbside and provisional votes. Provisional votes naturally create a huge undervote since so many are discarded. Once those are removed the actual undervote of 4.2% is revealed. With the correct undervote total, Collins' entire argument is rendered moot.


There was no vast conspiracy in Mecklenburg County. There was no suspicious, aberrant, shocking or surprising undervote in Mecklenburg County. Voters were unhappy with the mess in Washington and it showed in the slightly inflated undervote. Republicans voted for down-ballot races, but withheld their votes from Robin Hayes. I only wish they had withheld about 330 more.

This is a long piece and if I've failed to clarify a point well enough, please feel free to ask questions. I am not an election returns expert. I am not a political scientist. However, I do follow returns and fiddle around with numbers and I've been doing it for a good long while. I am in-tune enough with what happened in Mecklenburg to be able to take a step back and apply a little common sense to this situation. At least, I hope that's what I've done. I'm sure you will all let me know if I have failed.

Data Links
Email Data
Web Site Data
My Raw Data derived from Meck BOE data
Media Download, Meck BOE
Election Returns Archives, Meck BOE
November 7 Returns, Meck BOE

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