The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Sunday January 29th

Election Problems Common; High Stakes Prompt Scrutiny

For Bob Hunter, the 1998 election did not end after Election Night.

A reporting error in New Hanover County showed that Hunter, running for a state Court of Appeals seat, lost the election by 2,500 votes.

But a state law mandating a recount in races in which candidates are separated by less than 1 percent of the total vote signified the contest was not over yet.

The recount put Hunter in the lead, handing him the election by 2,500 votes.

Hunter's experience is not uncommon.

On a much larger scale, the recent presidential election controversy in Florida has shown that no election is problem-free.

Florida counties have counted ballots several times since Election Day - by machine and, in some counties, by hand.

Election officials have scrutinized the ballots, sometimes with magnifying glasses, looking for indentations or points of light that might determine voter intent. Florida voters have sued some counties, claiming confusing ballots disenfranchised them.

And the candidates themselves - Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore - have turned to the courts for resolution instead of the county canvassing boards, which count the ballots.

The recent turn of events caught the nation by surprise and raised a simple but poignant question: Can the American voting system be trusted?

Pre-existing problems within the system are being examined more closely.

UNC political science Professor Thad Beyle said contested elections, as well as errors and manipulations of the vote count, are fairly common. "I think (the Florida situation) is abnormal in the sense that there is such a great focus on it," he said. "I think that if you look at lots of states, there will be similar problems, but they aren't as momentous."

Beyle said election reform legislation is an inevitable result of the presidential election controversy. He added that studies are in progress to determine the effects of the current situation.

And Beyle thinks the controversy will have a negative effect on voters. "I think that the longer this plays out, the more cynical people will become," he said.

Controversial elections often result from a lack of uniformity in ballot systems.

Election experts said races decided below the national level often encounter problems because of varied voting procedures within the states.

Don Wright, N.C. Board of Elections general counsel, said electorate size contributes to the frequency of contested elections. "The smaller the election base, the smaller the office is, the more agitated people get," Wright said. "For example, the election for mayor is more likely to be contested than that for governor."

Wright said close elections can be contested through a recount or in court.

Marie Garber, author of "Contested Elections and Recounts: A Summary of State Procedures for Resolving Disputed Federal Elections," said minor problems in state and municipal elections are often ignored except in close situations.

She said county tax dollars fund elections, making individual counties responsible for elections.

Garber added that ballots in most states vary by county, except in sparsely populated states such as Alaska and Delaware, which use a uniform ballot.

The most widely used voting system in the country is Votomatic, similar to the system used in Palm Beach County.

To use Votomatic, voters insert a punch card into a machine that allows to pick a candidate by marking a circle.

Other types of ballots used include paper ballots and outdated lever machines. North Carolina uses a variety of systems - including computer touch screens, paper ballots and punch cards.

But elections experts say there is no perfect voting method because each method, coupled with underfunding, creates a unique set of problems.

"Things can go wrong in any voting system," Garber said. "They all have their weaknesses and their strengths."

Wright said money can often become a factor. He said counties frequently make election administration decisions based property tax revenues.

"In Palm Beach, somebody decided that throwing out 15,000 ballots in the last election wasn't much of a concern," he said. "It was a local political decision. They didn't want to spend the money."

Wright said county officials are forced to balance spending priorities. "Should (counties) spend millions of dollars on voting or schools?"

But experts say there are policies in place to ensure fair elections.

Wright said a system of checks and balances between the two major political parties helps alleviate potential problems. "Republican and Democratic officials work together to safeguard the polls," he said. "They keep an eye on each other, and it works beautifully."

Hunter, who spent 18 years in the N.C. House, said he sponsored a bill making recounts in close elections mandatory. The same bill later allowed Hunter to receive a recount. "There are procedures built in to check the results on Election Day," Hunter said.

But despite the recent election woes, Beyle said he thinks democracy and the election process is successful as a whole. He cited the relatively calm mood of the country after the election. "There are no riots, the Army hasn't taken over, we just had Thanksgiving dinner and students are back to worrying about late papers."

The State & National Editor can be reached at stntdesk@unc.edu.


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