Reports of Voting Errors in MA-Sen. Greatly Exaggerated

There’s no way to spin it: yesterday was a bad day to be a Democrat. Because his campaign depended on blaming Democrats for his own party’s failures, which we’re still in the process of correcting, Scott Brown emphatically did not deserve to win this election, but neither did Attorney General Coakley. She took her seat for granted, which a politician must never do. We show we care for our constituents by working strenuously to advance their interests, and by never presuming to be better than them. Coakley’s belief in her own entitlement broke this second necessity, and suggested an apathy that would eventually betray the first. That she was the lesser of two evils I still maintain, but sometimes that’s not enough.

Yesterday also saw the second of two special elections to feature “serious” questions about ballot and voting machine integrity. Frequent readers will recall (and resent my over-excited coverage of) Doug Hoffman’s abortive, ill-informed attempt to challenge his loss in the NY-23 special election.

The Coakley/Brown election almost descended into similar controversy, upon reports that some ballots came pre-marked for Brown. It’s too early to judge whether that actually happened. Election Day reports carry with them the emotion of the hour, and therefore ought to be distrusted. But even assuming the reports are true, Coakley is displaying more class than Hoffman by letting the issue slide, because this just isn’t something to worry about. That may sound like an odd thing to say, as any and all Election Day errors should concern us, but premarking ballots is a terrible way to steal an election. It just doesn’t work, and here’s why.

Like an increasing number of states, Massachusetts uses a paper ballot/optical scanner-based voting system. In this system, the voter marks a ballot in a private area, and scans it herself into the machine. By federal law (PDF), optical scanner machines must reject a ballot that marks more than the allowed choices (in lingo, an “overvoted” ballot; Help America Vote Act of 2002, § 301(a)(1)(A)(iii)), and must permit an “audit,” where election administrators compare actually-voted paper ballots to machine-reported totals (HAVA § 301(a)(2)).

These two requirements both function to catch almost any mischief worked by prevoting ballots. If the ballots are handed to the voter, even if the voter barely glances at the ballot, most voters will either intend to vote the ballot as it was marked, or vote for another candidate, and have their ballot rejected as overvoted. The error is thus either harmless or immediately flagged to the voter’s attention. The only “theft” of votes can be from those voters who deliberately or accidentally undervote (mark no choices) for the premarked contest, or from voters who refuse to correct their overvoted ballot. I can’t peg a number to how many voters would likely fall into these categories, but most likely, it’s not enough to alter the outcome.

Alternately, if premarked ballots are simply voted by campaign workers — the modern equivalent of ballot box stuffing — a simple canvass and comparison to paper records will reveal the scheme. If a machine from a precinct with 600 voters shows 2,000 ballots, even a slight glance will suffice to note the discrepancy.

Reports of ballot stuffing by Brown operatives thus fall into a strange hole in the legal landscape: these reports should be investigated, but because, even if true, they wouldn’t change the election’s outcome, Coakley’s motivations to conduct this public service are precisely zero. Coakley the candidate may not care, but perhaps Coakley the Attorney General should, if she can avoid the appearance of sour grapes.



  1. I thinkw e also need to look at how much – and how little – regional and national Democrats focused on the Mass. campaign as well. Me thinks the Atty General thought her seat safe because the conventional Democratic wisdom thought it safe. A dangerous combination headed into the mid terms later this year.

  2. She took her seat for granted, which a politician must never do.

    This is it in a nutshell, Ames.

    1. Not just her, but the entire Democratic leadership. Thats what they get for dragging out the health care bill for as long as they have. Now it may be dead in the water and the American people will pay for it.

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