Close Races Spotlight An Ugly, Broken Mess

By Charlie Cook
© National Journal Group Inc.

This column was originally featured on National Journal on June 11, 2005.

SEATTLE -- Last week's court decision upholding Democrat Christine Gregoire's victory over Republican Dino Rossi in Washington state's 2004 gubernatorial election serves as a reminder that the only time the inadequacies of our election-administration system draw attention is when that system breaks down.

By then, the atmosphere tends to be so charged with partisanship, suspicion, and self-interest that an intelligent discussion of the system's problems becomes impossible. Demands for reform, as a result, are perceived as partisan and as sour grapes.

Most U.S. elections, thank goodness, are not very close. And even when victory margins are narrow, they are usually sufficient to persuade all but the bitterest partisans, paranoids, and conspiracy theorists to accept the outcome.

Every once in a while, though, an election ends in a virtual tie -- leading reasonable people to disagree on the outcome. That's when the problem of how little money states and localities spend on the conduct of elections becomes clear. Counties, which supervise most U.S. elections, commonly make overseeing elections a lower priority than monitoring food quality in the county jail. But only in very, very close contests do the problems inherent in shortchanging election administration become obvious and acute.

In my professional life, we've seen several such elections. In 1974, the morning after New Hampshire voted on the U.S. Senate race pitting GOP Rep. Louis Wyman against former state Insurance Commissioner John Durkin, Wyman held a 355-vote lead over his Democratic rival. New Hampshire's secretary of state recounted and found Durkin to have won by 10 votes. State law required the certified returns to be signed by the Governor's Ballot Law Commission. However, Republican Gov. Meldrim Thomson's commissioners investigated a select number of ballots and declared Wyman the winner by 2 votes.

The U.S. Senate refused to seat either candidate, and instructed its Rules Committee to sort out the mess. By August 1975, Durkin and Wyman had agreed to a new vote. Durkin was the clear winner on September 16, 1975.

In 1984, a House race -- in Indiana's 8th District -- produced a similar tangle. Former Bloomington Mayor Frank X. McCloskey, a Democrat, had won the seat in 1982 after the incumbent was charged with drunk driving shortly before the election. In 1984, the GOP nominated two-term state Rep. Richard McIntyre to face McCloskey. The first count concluded a week after the election that McCloskey led McIntyre by 72 votes out of 233,000 cast. Later, election officials discovered that ballots in two precincts in a Democratic county had been counted twice. Corrected tallies gave McIntyre a 34-vote lead. Without investigating other counties, the Republican secretary of state certified McIntyre as the winner. Democrats were up in arms, particularly when a recount in another county showed McCloskey with an overall lead of 72 votes.

The Democratic-controlled House refused to seat either man, but paid both a congressional salary, which McIntyre declined. Republicans argued that the House should have to abide by the decision of Indiana's secretary of state. In April 1985, a special House task force completed a recount and determined that McCloskey had won by four votes. On May 1, the House seated him.

A 1994 House race in Connecticut's 2nd District was equally tight. After barely winning re-election in 1992, Democratic Rep. Sam Gejdenson faced a rematch with Republican state Sen. Edward Munster, a former Pfizer biostatistician. On Election Night, Gejdenson held a 2-vote lead. After a recount, the margin doubled. Connecticut's top court certified the election and increased the incumbent's margin of victory to 21 votes. The House Oversight Committee allowed Gejdenson to be sworn in while it looked into the possibility of ordering a new contest, but Gejdenson's victory stood.

Two years later, Rep. Bob Dornan, having given up his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, faced a difficult race in California's 46th District against Democratic financial analyst Loretta Sanchez. After the initial tally, Dornan led Sanchez by 233 votes. When 9,000 of 12,000 absentee and provisional ballots were counted, Sanchez led by 929 votes. After a recount, Sanchez was ahead by 979. Dornan alleged fraud, saying that 547 noncitizens had voted. The House Oversight Committee found evidence that 748 illegal voters had participated, but their ballots were not enough to change the result.

In 1998, Sen. Harry Reid, R-Nev., clung to a minuscule lead of 459 votes over Republican Rep. John Ensign. The challenger called for a recount, and a cursory review of the ballots in one county found that a printing error had caused some votes not to be counted. After a hand recount that took weeks, Reid claimed a 428-vote victory. That contest was almost a landslide compared with some of the other disputed elections.

Few Americans need reminding of the fiasco two years later in the presidential balloting in Florida -- of butterfly ballots, of hanging chads, and of controversies over the counting in Miami-Dade and Broward counties (among others). The world became a witness to the sausage-making of ballot construction and vote tabulating. While many post-2000 election reforms were proposed and some were implemented, the attention of the public and government officials soon shifted. And now most such efforts have stalled. Some defective gene in our national political makeup makes arguing over recount minutiae and alleging fraud much more compelling than fixing administrative problems that are, for the most part, not terribly complex or difficult.

Here in Washington state, Gregoire, who had served as state attorney general for three terms, found herself in a much tougher race than anticipated. On Election Night, she led former state Sen. Rossi by about 7,000 votes, but with plenty of absentee ballots left to be counted. Once the absentees were factored in two weeks later, Rossi led by 261 votes. The closeness of the outcome triggered a machine recount that revealed a Rossi advantage of 42 votes. The Democratic Party then requested -- and paid for -- a statewide hand recount, which Gregoire won by 129 votes. Rossi sued, charging errors by election officials and illegal votes by convicted felons.

On Monday, June 6, Judge John Bridges ruled that "there is no substantial evidence ... that improper conduct or irregularity procured Ms. Gregoire's election." But Bridges singled out King County (Seattle) election officials for a scolding. He told The Seattle Times that the "culture" of the county's election office needs to change. "Almost anyone who works in state and local government knows exactly what this culture is," Bridges said. "It's inertia. It's selfishness. It's taking our paycheck but not doing the work. It's not caring about either our fellow workers or the public we're supposed to serve. It's not taking responsibility. It's refusing to be accountable. And so it is the voters who should send a message."

Residents say that election officials here, like elsewhere, are near the bottom of the local governmental food chain. They are some of the least motivated public employees and get the least funding to perform the least appreciated work.

The side that runs behind in a very close, disputed election is often quick to yell "fraud." However, the real villain is rarely vote theft. It's neglect. And this neglect is the electoral equivalent of an assembly-line defect, the result of substandard materials and poor workmanship yielding a shoddy product.

Democratic media consultant and election lawyer Chris Sautter, a veteran of the Indiana 8th District recount fight, suggests that with the country so evenly divided between the two main parties, "there will be an increase in the number of contested elections at the congressional and statewide level." He says, "Recounts are now an integral part of what [political guru] Dick Morris called the 'permanent campaign.'"

If so, the adoption of nationally accepted standards for vote counting -- and recounting -- is essential. Once a contested election is upon us, the battle lines are formed, with each side arguing its self-interest. By then, it's too late to start trying to agree on the ground rules for our democracy.

Cook Political Report editorial assistants Meredith Harman and Tim Sahd contributed to this Report.