Missing! 5,842 Ballots Unreported in Dallas County, IA

[Image via iowatreasurers]

State and local officials are breathing a sigh of relief but still facing some challenges after it was discovered that more than 5,800 ballots went unreported in Dallas County, IA. The Des Moines Register has more:

Thousands of ballots in Dallas County went uncounted on Election Day last November because of a mistake in how county officials reported their results to the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office.

Election officials at the state and county level stressed that the missing votes did not change the outcome of any election on the ballot in the suburban metro county, despite the magnitude of the error.

A total of 5,842 absentee ballots went unreported on Election Day and throughout the official certification process. That total amounts to 13 percent of the 44,430 ballots cast in the county and almost one-third of all the absentee votes cast.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, the error didn’t affect any outcomes, though it took several months for the error to surface:

“Remarkably, what they failed to report were proportional with how the rest of Dallas County voted, so it did not change one single race anywhere,” said Dawn Williams, the elections director at the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office. “It changed the results, but not who was elected.”

The discrepancy wasn’t identified until Feb. 1 — nearly three months after Election Day. The Secretary of State’s Office noticed it first, when an official found that more Dallas County voters had been identified in the statewide voter database as having voted on Nov. 8 than there were ballots cast, according to the official results.

The County election office explained to the state that the error was purely a mistake by individuals during counting:

On Feb. 2, Dallas County Elections Deputy Kim Owen wrote a letter acknowledging the mistake and describing how it happened.

After the polls closed on Nov. 8, the Dallas County Auditor’s Office fed their absentee and Election Day ballots into tabulating machines, which tallied up the votes for each race on the ballot.

For several batches of absentee ballots, however, officials failed to take a subsequent step — uploading those vote tallies to the reporting software that compiles official vote reports. That means the full results never appeared online, in media reports or in the official results reported to and certified by the Iowa Secretary of State.

How did it happen? “Human error,” according to the Dallas County letter.

Williams, the Secretary of State’s Office official, agreed.

“It does not appear that it was willful,” Williams said. “If they were going to willfully do something, they would have made it make a difference. It appears from my knowledge of this situation and my experience that it was a human error.”

The real question is what to do now. The state has essentially admonished the county for the error but there will be no further discipline; but the question remains of how to account for the mistake in the certified election results:

As a result of the error, the Secretary of State’s Office will issue a “technical infraction” to Dallas County — essentially a strongly worded letter recommending more training for election officials. The letter won’t come with any penalties, and the county will not be subject to any criminal or civil consequences, Williams said.

The lingering question now is how to report the updated results. State law does not appear to allow county officials to amend their certified election results, leaving questions about how official documents will reflect the 5,842 additional votes.

The Secretary of State’s Office is working with the attorney general for guidance on how to proceed, Williams said.

“The incorrect numbers are in the official record, so we’re exploring what avenues there are to having full transparency and getting the corrected numbers on the official record,” she said.

This latter problem illuminates how much the election system relies on the sense of finality inherent in certification – and how hard it is to change the results when new information comes to light. This is a similar problem to the one facing the tiny town of Frederick, KS – which cannot dissolve after ineligible voters were allowed to cast ballots in a vote on the town’s future. Finding a way to account for these kinds of problems is important, but even more so is the need to ensure that election results are right the first time.

You can bet that Dallas County – and the rest of Iowa – are going to do everything they can to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Stay tuned …

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