Almost a month has passed since Election Day, and I’m still troubled by what happened in Waldenburg.
Randy Wooten was in a three-way race for mayor of the small Poinsett County town. Both of his opponents each received 18 votes, but he received none.
He was pretty sure he voted for himself, but somehow his vote went astray. “It’s just very hard to understand,” Wooten said in an Associated Press article that got national attention as a quirky human interest story.
But the subject matter couldn’t be more serious, and the Waldenburg incident uniquely illuminates a growing problem with our democracy.
It’s not that what happened in Waldenburg is unusual. Voters around the country encountered problems at the polls, usually because of malfunctioning electronic voting machines and identification devices. And in another part of Arkansas, Benton County election officials recounted ballots at least three times and the results changed, in some cases, by more than 30,000 votes.
What’s different about Waldenburg is the scale of the injustice, which makes it immediately comprehensible. In Benton County, the 30,000-vote discrepancy was enormous, considering that just over 48,000 ballots were cast in the congressional election there. But we don’t know exactly whose votes were potentially neutralized by the software failures. No one can claim with certainty that his or her vote was miscounted. The abstraction subdues the outrage.
Wooten, on the other hand, is a real person with a legitimate complaint. He cast his vote on an electronic voting machine, but it apparently didn’t register correctly. With this singular incident, the entire process is called into question. After all, what happens to the concept of “one man, one vote,” if one man in a town of 80 people can’t get his one vote counted among the 36 cast?
Furthermore, Wooten’s vote — unless it simply “disappeared” — would have thrown the race to one of his opponents, instead of creating a tie. And if Wooten’s vote was miscounted, other votes could have been tallied wrong as well.
For example, the Benton County snafu led to a reversal of results in several contests. In one instance, the race for Lowell city clerk became a tie when a fourth recount on Nov. 16 included electronic ballots discovered in bags that had been left in the back room of the Election Commission’s office.
“It’s deplorable that our system is screwed up,” one of the candidates told the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas. “It’s not that hard. This isn’t rocket science. It’s counting.”
But beyond the inescapable potential for human error, how do you truly count votes that have been cast into the ether? How can we trust a digital record?
In effect, we have turned the system into rocket science by leaving the counting to machines that have been proven unreliable. In Sharp County, a “software glitch” delayed election results and a voting machine shortage created long lines at the polls that led some people to leave without voting. In Crawford County, voting machines failed and, in one precinct, showed a major discrepancy between the vote totals and the number of ballots issued.
So instead of gaining efficiency, the process loses accountability, because election officials can just blame the faulty technology for all of the problems.
In June, Arkansas Secretary of State Charlie Daniels said Election Systems and Software, which has the $15 million state contract to provide electronic voting machines, “let Arkansas down.” He added that he was “disappointed and frustrated over their poor performance in this state and what I considered to be their shockingly cavalier attitude toward managing this project for the first five months of the implementation.”
Those strong words clearly were not enough to improve ES&S’s performance, considering our experience in November. Earlier this week, Daniels asked the state legislature to provide nearly $500,000 in additional funds to make sure the new voting machines work correctly.
With computers managing nearly every aspect of our personal and professional lives, why can’t the ES&S technology reliably perform a relatively straightforward and simple function? And why are we so complacent about their expensive and damaging failures?
More importantly, why have we accepted a situation in which the very method of counting votes is always in question? How can we allow our most fundamental right — the absolute underpinning of our democracy — to be undermined by incompetence, negligence and possible malice?
Tens of thousands of votes this year in Arkansas will forever be in question, and hardly anyone is upset about it. It seems the more widespread the injury, the smaller the protest.
There are a lot more Randy Wootens out there. They just don’t know it.