Don't raise cost of recounts

Posted: Monday, March 14, 2005

As one of the people who requested the recount of our U.S. Senate race, I am distressed that a successful exercise in democracy is being used as an excuse to raise the fee citizens must pay to a prohibitive amount.

Currently, Alaska law requires that citizens put up $10,000 for a statewide recount. As we just learned, that is a very difficult amount to raise in five days. Any more would not be feasible.

A recount amounts to an audit, and as such should be part of the cost of doing business. The cost to the state was minor in comparison to other costs, such as $238,000 to reprint a poorly worded ballot, which could have been easily avoided, and would have paid for six recounts at $40,000 each.

Recent editorials have presumed that the recount was a waste of time and money. It was not. It was educational, and most of us were reassured that the vote count, in a race that attracted extraordinary outside interest, was indeed fair. This was not true of recounts in other states. In Ohio, for example, the hand recounts were not done randomly, elections officials acted defensive in a thousand ways, and citizens were far from reassured.

Experts in voting technology recommend that a statistically valid number of random hand recounts be done routinely after elections. A costlier idea would be to conduct a complete recount every election. That would amount to duplicate data entry, which is often used in social science research to ensure accuracy. The audit method we use, requiring that citizens request and pay a portion of the cost of a recount, is cheaper because it only occurs occasionally (once in the last 10 years), but acts as a deterrent to fraud because it is always a possibility. If the cost is raised further, we lose the deterrent effect of our law. We also lose the point of having paper ballots if we never actually recount them.

Alaska is one of the few states that still gets high marks for its safeguards and basic fairness. As lieutenant governor, Fran Ulmer bent over backwards to be fair to all sides. Loren Leman inherited the system she designed so well, and all he needs to live up to our history is to be fair, too. Elections Chief Laura Glaiser has so far done a commendable job; she took the new touchscreen computers out of commission until they are outfitted with a paper record. She ran the recount fairly. People in other states who are worried about their elections systems are looking to Alaska as a model.

One of the things we found reassuring was that we program our own elections and the vendor, Diebold, has little to do with the election process in Alaska. This highly partisan company has been in the news for its tawdry behavior a bit too much. The New York Times ran an editorial about Diebold's lack of integrity. It was good to find out that their role is confined at this point to repairing machines. I hope we keep it that way.

This issue may appear partisan to some. Democrats and independents have been feeling most threatened lately, nationwide. But of course, vote tampering is as old as elections themselves and the chips can fall either way. In Washington state right now it is Republicans who are arguing that the state and its taxpayers should pay not thousands but millions, not for a recount but a revote.

Republicans in the Alaska legislature could bully through this idea to raise the amount citizens must raise to a prohibitive $50,000. But please reconsider. Last year a bill passed with bipartisan support requiring a paper trail by 2006 in any voting machine used in Alaska. In the current atmosphere of nationwide concern, it makes no sense to weaken our safeguards. Instead, we should be looking for ways to strengthen them further. Random hand recounts for example, conducted after each election, could ensure accuracy and ward off or catch tampering.

Here in Alaska we can still pride ourselves on a system that is not corrupt. But we must not allow it to erode, and that could happen easily.

The House State Affairs Committee may try to attach this astronomical fee hike as an amendment to a more general voting bill, HB94, on Tuesday. I urge citizens concerned about election integrity to contact their legislators.

• Nina Mollett is a Juneau resident and freelance writer.

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