By Virginia Martin
As everyone is consumed with the Iowa caucus problems, I would like to make a few points about election administration in Columbia County.
I particularly want to put an end to this publication’s repeated and disparaging assertion about the November election that “full results in some races were not available until days and, in some cases, weeks after the election.” This particular quote appeared in your February 1st story about the recommendation process for the next Democratic election commissioner. I am currently serving in that position as a “holdover.”
First, the combined early-voting and election-day results were publicized three days after the November election. Yes, those results should have been posted on election night. But, due to technological issues that can be traced to more than one source (I will resist assigning blame; as commissioner I accept blame for what happened, and I believe my then-counterpart did as well), we were unable to post such combined results until Friday. We could have posted early-voting results by themselves in addition to the election-day results by themselves earlier than Friday, but there were privacy issues in doing so, and the board was, of course, loathe to violate the secrecy of anyone’s ballot.
It must be said that, when races are very close, candidates have an imminent need to know the results as of that night, even though they’re not final. On election night, we knew there were two towns with very close races, and that night we conveyed the unofficial results to those candidates. For most other races it took us three days, and several more for countywide races with wide victory margins. But, once the results were properly combined and we had 100% confidence that our numbers were accurate, we posted them. I apologize again to candidates and voters for the delay.
Second, in regard to the above quote, I need to point out that election-day results have never been official results nor have they ever been full results. The most obvious reason is that absentee and provisional ballots are not counted until the passage of one week (in the case of a primary election) or two weeks (in the case of a general election). Again, to ensure the secrecy of the ballot, we wait that long--until all valid absentee ballots have been received--before opening any absentee or provisional ballots. In November’s election we did not count our last absentee ballot until more than three weeks after the election. Then, after we had full certainty that all our numbers were accurate, we certified the election, no small undertaking. Election law acknowledges that election results take weeks to properly compile and gives us 25 days post-election to certify. It is misleading and a disservice to all voters to suggest that full results should have been available immediately post election.
Now, I am reading the comments made in national newspapers about the glitches with the Iowa caucus. Many of the commenters from the election-integrity community are acquaintances of mine. As commissioner from the county that utilizes arguably the most secure, most transparent, and most accurate election-verification methods in the entire country, I have been asked to present on panels across the country with many of these individuals. They are in agreement that: (1) technology can be problematic and must not be the sole basis on which elections are decided, (2) technology sometimes will fail and that is the main reason why the decidedly low-tech voting system of paper ballots, hand marked, bipartisanly secured at all times, and robustly audited after the election, is unquestionably necessary, and (3) sometimes the media and the voters just have to be a little bit patient. What’s most important is that the election is accurate and secure. Yes, timeliness is important, but providing results before the board has 100% confidence that they are accurate, in response to someone’s impatience, does a disservice to the voters and the candidates. Election administration is not for the faint of heart. One has to be dedicated to calmly getting it right, even in the face of blistering attacks.
Columbia County’s elections are conducted with hand-marked paper ballots that are bipartisanly secured at all times and are transparently and robustly audited after the election. Everyone is welcome to observe our hand count. Everyone is welcome to know what our procedures are. Everyone in this county should feel very confident that their elections are accurate.
Virginia Martin, Democratic Election Commissioner since late 2008, currently serves in the position as a holdover until the appointment of a new commissioner. Since 2010, when electronic voting machines were introduced, she and her Republican counterpart have conducted robust, transparent, and publicly accessible post-election hand-count audits. She speaks nationally on the subject and has testified in federal court in election civil-rights cases.