To err is not always human Anne Arundel recount: Public should bear cost when difference is within machines' margin of error.

December 01, 1998

VICTORIA L. SCHADE just paid $9,750 to find out that she undeniably lost her seat in the Maryland House of Delegates to Democrat Mary Rosso in the 31st Legislative District last month. Ms. Schade did learn one fact for her money: She lost not by 18 votes, as originally believed, but by 6. The recount did not change the outcome, but it was instructive nonetheless.

We like to think that voting machines make election tallies less subject to error, but the recount demonstrates that machines, like humans, are capable of mistakes.

The three-day retabulation by the Anne Arundel County Board of Election Supervisors discovered that the optical scanners missed 278 votes cast in the 31st. Apparently, the machines failed to detect marks made with blue ink or the wrong type of pencil. The scanners also may have disqualified ballots with stray marks.

Statistically, the margin of error was quite small, but still significant. Out of the 30,738 votes cast, the margin of error was 0.0090442. That means for every 10,000 votes cast, 90 were miscounted. In a race so close, that gap could have changed the outcome.

If the elections board decides to continue using the Eagle Optech IIIP Voting System, it should study whether this is the typical margin of error. The county's other races last month were decided by wide enough margins that an error this small would not have altered the outcome. However, in future races where the difference is close -- perhaps less than 100 votes -- the ballots should be hand counted as well as machine counted.

Since the recent review established that machines can err, the county should pay for the recount. Taxpayers should not subsidize candidates merely fishing to overturn an election, but recounts of races within the margin of error should be built into the election board budget. The public has a stake in seeing election results delivered as accurately as possible.

Pub Date: 12/01/98

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