HUDSON–Want to be sure your vote in the presidential race will be counted? Cast it in Columbia County.
There may be cause for concern on the national level after The New York Times and other news organizations reported recently that Russian hackers had penetrated the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee and the FBI found that “foreign hackers” had broken into election databases in two states, potentially compromising the integrity of the November 8 presidential election.
County voters can rest easier because while electronic ballot scanning machines are used to record and tabulate the results of paper ballots, what distinguishes the polling process here is that in contested races every ballot scanned by the machine is also recounted by hand.
Virginia Martin, the Democratic county election commissioner, said this week that to her knowledge this may be the only county in the state and the nation where electronically counted ballots are also hand-counted whenever there’s the slightest question of who has won or by how much.
As of April 1, 2016 there were 43,199 registered voters in Columbia County. In the last two presidential years about 72% of registered voters have gone to the polls. Turnout for the 2012 presidential election nationwide was less than 54%.
Ms. Martin says the threat to the integrity of the system is not from some agents of a foreign government or any intentional attempt to skew the result of an election. The more likely culprit could be “non-malicious mistakes” caused by aging equipment that misreads or miscounts the paper ballot. The state requires that 3% of the ballots in each race be hand-counted to catch such problems, but that’s not close enough for Ms. Martin and her GOP counterpart, Republican Election Commissioner Jason Nastke, who have agreed to count 100% of the ballots in contested races.
The only exceptions, she says, are when the candidates themselves agree that there’s no point to a recount after the polls have closed. “At a certain point pragmatism takes over,” she said.
That doesn’t eliminate disputes over the validity of absentee ballots, where parties can challenge individual votes based on how the ballot is marked in a close race or whether the voter is properly registered. This process is conducted in public and candidates have the opportunity to challenge the results in court, leaving no opportunities for hackers to affect the outcome.
Elsewhere around the country states have adopted laws billed as barriers to so-called “voter fraud.” The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law conducted research on the topic and concluded: “…most allegations of fraud turn out to be baseless— and that of the few allegations remaining, most reveal election irregularities and other forms of election misconduct.”
Ms. Martin dismisses claims of fraud as “mythological.” In two recent decisions federal courts have ruled against laws on voter fraud, finding that they are designed to create barriers aimed at minority voters.
She says that despite the potential for delays in obtaining official election results local voters seem “happy” with the commissioners’ decision to hand count the votes in contested elections because they can trust the results.
Mr. Nastke, the GOP commissioner could not be reached for comment before press deadline.