Sunday, February 13, 2005

When Elections Go Bad

The New York Times
February 13, 2005

When Elections Go Bad

Steve Troxler is a tobacco farmer from Browns Summit, N.C. Nicholas Spano is a career politician from Yonkers. Aside from being stockily built Republican family men, they do not seem to have much in common, except this: Both are the last candidates standing in close elections that took more than three months to decide because of debilitating, constitutionally dangerous - and utterly fixable - flaws in their states' electoral systems.

In New York, Mr. Spano's re-election as state senator hinged on a handful of paper ballots; no one could agree on whether to count them. His lawyers fought to reject them on technical grounds, fearing he would lose otherwise. As the case ping-ponged through the courts, an array of judges took a whack at interpreting New York election law, with no two rulings alike.

In North Carolina, Mr. Troxler's ascent to agriculture commissioner was stymied at first by thousands of votes that were impossible to count, because they had vanished into the electronic ether. A single electronic voting machine had lost 4,438 votes, more than the margin separating him from his opponent. With no paper trail, there was nothing to do but guess at the outcome.

When the democratic machinery broke down, partisan squabbling and confusion ruled. People in both states offered wacky solutions. Mr. Troxler persuaded 1,300 people to swear in affidavits that they had voted for him, thus proving, he insisted, that his victory was an arithmetic certainty. While this ad hoc approach deserves points for creativity, it shreds the principle of the secret ballot and invites voter coercion.

The Republican mayor of Yonkers, Philip Amicone, called for a new election because, he said, the close vote made the true winner unknowable. His agnostic gloom vanished once most of the contested ballots were counted and Mr. Spano won.

Both crises finally evaporated when Mr. Troxler's and Mr. Spano's opponents bowed to reality and conceded. In both states, voters' confidence seems bruised but not shattered by these torturous elections, because both men are plausible winners - and the losers had the sense to throw in the legal towel.

There are ways to wring some good results from these bad elections. A legislative panel in Raleigh has urged that all voting machines generate paper records. Lawmakers there should quickly approve that proposal, but reject another that would allow contested elections to be decided by the state legislature.

In the Spano race, New York's highest court ruled that provisional ballots cast in the right polling place but wrong election district should count - a victory for voters across the state. It should have gone further, ruling that provisional ballots are valid even if cast in the wrong polling place.