In Fact, They DO Count: Anchorage Recertifies Election After 58 Misplaced Absentee Ballots Found


[Image courtesy of wikimedia]

One misconception electiongeeks often hear from non-geeks is the notion that absentee ballots aren’t counted unless the election is close. I like to joke that saying that is the best way to make an election official mad – but now I have conclusive proof that it isn’t true.

That’s because Anchorage, AK recently recertified a mayoral runoff – decided by more than 40 percentage points – because election officials discovered a ballot box with a handful of uncounted ballots. Alaska Dispatch News has the story:

The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday recertified the mayoral runoff election, taking into account 58 ballots not previously tallied that altered the result by 0.01 percent but did not change the outcome.

Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones, who oversees municipal elections, said the bulk of the uncounted ballots were found inside a silver ballot box in a conference room in City Hall. Absentee ballots sent by mail are moved between three rooms — including the conference room — and two floors during the counting process. The day after the Assembly certified the runoff election on May 19, staffers discovered the silver box with the ballots still in their envelopes, she said.

It appears that the ballots were misplaced as they moved from room to room during counting – a problem that the City hopes to address going forward:

“It’s partially a space issue, and the space issue results in us handling the same ballots multiple times — moving them from room to room — and that was one of the problems,” Jones said.

Jones said officials are looking at moving the counting process to a larger space within City Hall so the ballots can be received, processed and tallied all in one room. According to an Assembly memorandum, the Municipal Clerk’s Office is updating the “primary, secondary and new tertiary checks and balances to make sure these and all ballots are accounted for.”

Assembly members Ernie Hall and Dick Traini noted the space constraint during the meeting.

It’s worth noting that this wasn’t an effort to get a close election right; the runoff was a clear victory for one of the candidates:

In total, 70,574 ballots were counted in the mayoral runoff election, according to the numbers presented Tuesday. Candidate Amy Demboski received 39.26 percent of the votes — up 0.01 percent after the 58 uncounted ballots were accounted for — and Ethan Berkowitz received 60.74 percent. He will take office July 1.

One issue to which the Assembly may want to return is the fact that this recertification is the second in as many elections. Last week, the Assembly voted to recertify the April election because of a similar problem, as detailed in a memo from the Clerk. That recertification, like this one, involved a small number of ballots (70) that did not change the outcome.

This story is not only interesting but important on several levels. First, it demonstrates that election offices really do count every ballot – including absentees – regardless of the final margin. Second, it highlights how designing a good workflow with a steady path and a minimum of unnecessary movement of materials is crucial in even the smallest of spaces. Finally, it exemplifies an ethos to count every vote, even if the original mistake was the election office’s, that I think election officials embrace even if it is not formally imposed upon them.

Plus, it’s a great way to answer those folks at your summer barbecues who think absentee ballots don’t get counted unless it’s close!

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