Six years ago while the votes were being re-counted, Brinson Kinzer was anxiously sitting in the Scott County Administration Center and wondering what must've went wrong on the campaign trail. Only one vote separated him from his opponent as he was hoping to keep his position as the mayor of Blue Grass for another term.
Unofficial results from primary night showed he had lost to his opponent, Timothy Brandenburg, on election night in November 2013. But Kinzer had barely been pushed over the top though absentee votes that came in by mail over the following days.
A recount was called. Fewer than 350 votes had been cast in the mayoral election that year, but the three-member panel of judges had to recount the ballots three times by hand before reaching the same final tally, which affirmed Kinzer’s victory. Each candidate, Kinzer recalls, was on the edge of his seat.
“It was humbling,” said Kinzer, who uses the experience as a cautionary tale for candidates and to demonstrate that every vote counts in an election. He added: “I do remember somebody telling me, ‘Brinson, don’t worry. That machine will not lie.’”
This year, Davenport’s mayoral primary is headed to a recount after Alderwoman Rita Rawson narrowly took second place by only eight votes. Third-place finisher Dan Portes has called for the ballots to be reviewed by hand.
The general consensus among experts in voting technology is that a combination of people and machines are needed – machines to count and people to ensure the machines remain honest, said Douglas Jones, a professor with the University of Iowa who specializes in the field of voting technology and elections administration.
Machines are better at counting than humans assuming no other underlying problems exist. But Jones says no amount of testing can show that any machine is error-free.
At the same time, studies have shown that voters place high confidence in present-day electronic voting machines used to tally votes, Jones said. In a social experiment conducted by Jones and his students, the university created a “Vote-o-graph” touch-screen machine that purposefully misbehaved to test how users would react when their votes were displayed for the 2008 wrong presidential candidate.
Most of the people participating in the experiment thought they had screwed up. Only one person, Jones recalled, thought something might be wrong with the machine.
“Even voters who caught the machine cheating blamed themselves for the machine’s faults instead of blaming the machine, and had high confidence the machine was counting their votes correctly,” Jones said.
While human clerical error is usually higher in some elections where multiple candidates are being counted for several simultaneous races, Jones said re-counting a single race should be relatively simple. He noted that other developed democratic nations, including England and Australia, have long continued to count votes by hand and only recently began bringing vote-counting machines into the process.
In a Davenport primary, the top two vote-getters advance to the November general election. Alderman Mike Matson was a proven winner on primary night after he took 33% of the vote. But third-place contender Dan Portes has called for nearly 6,500 ballots to be recounted by hand after results now certified by the Scott County Board of Supervisors show he lost the second-place spot Rawson by eight votes.
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A recount board consisting of three volunteers chosen by Portes and Rawson will sift through all the sealed ballots sitting in a 40,000-square-foot Scott County-owned warehouse beginning Monday morning. Recount judges will be sequestered there during the count over what’s expected to last two days as each vote is examined for accuracy and re-counted.
Between lunch breaks and the possibility of human errors, Scott County Roxanna Moritz expects the process could take as long as 40 hours to complete. Judges must come to agreement on the final tally in recounts. The process is stringent and all judges must be present at all times.
“If you go to the bathroom, we stop counting,” said Moritz, who also expects the results will not change after the recount.
Poll workers are trained to log anomalies in their log books on primary night, Moritz said, and so far no irregularities have been found aside from some “overvotes” – when a voter selects too many candidates for a particular office. Regardless, Mortiz says she is confident the results will be upheld because of the preciseness of the voting machines the auditor’s office uses. And Portes’ request offers an opportunity to show the public that the system works, Moritz says.
“I definitely have faith in our system,” Moritz said Thursday after the results were certified and the recount approved. “I have faith in the voting equipment. I think it’s people that make mistakes.”
As the ballots are to be counted again by hand, even Portes doubts the results are going to change. But he says the process aims to “validate the system” after supporters reached him noting the closeness of the race.
Meanwhile Kinzer, the former mayor of Blue Grass, is now a member of the Scott County Board of Supervisors. He says the ironic thing for him was that after winning another term to serve as mayor he became the top vote-getter in the election for Scott County Board.
He too is not convinced the recount will change anything. After all, the county has invested much in the new technology now used by the auditor’s office and the equipment is highly accurate.
“My guess is he may pick up one, maybe two,” Kinzer said of Portes in the upcoming recount. “But I just don’t think the machines lie.”