EDITORIAL: Show us the numbers

WHY DON’T THE VOTERS of Columbia County know who won the elections last week? The technical answer is that the results won’t be final until all the absentee ballots are opened, a process that starts next week.

But for decades the county Board of Elections has produced “unofficial” results based on the numbers now collected Election Day from electronic ballot scanners. What the public saw the next day was how each candidate or proposition fared. Those totals were good but not infallible predictors of who had won what office and who had lost despite absentee votes.

This year we didn’t have anything at all from county election officials on Election Day after the polls had closed and little the next day other than a website screen that said the results would be posted as soon as possible—just a click away. Click, click, click….

What was different this year was early voting. It’s taken New York a long time to recognize that making it more convenient for people to vote might result in more people exercising that right, even in an off-year election like this one, with no races for federal or statewide offices on the ballot. Word got around that it was possible to cast your ballot from October 23 through November 3 at one of three polling places around the county or simply go to your regular polling place on Election Day, November 5.

Turns out that county voters liked the early-vote option. A lot. This county had the highest rate in the state of early voters: over 7% of the county’s 47,128 registered voters voted early. That’s 3,371 people, according to the Times Union newspaper.

Okay, so 700 ballots cast on the first day of early voting didn’t work on the ballot scanners. Think of this as similar to a new mobile phone: eventually it will make you very happy if you can resist smashing it first out of frustration for what it won’t do. Early voting is complicated but it doesn’t require new technology; it’s old tech used in a new way. The ballot problem was resolved the next day. Judging from the number of early voters, the public overlooked that early setback.

But a full week after the polls closed the public still lacks results for the countywide candidates. At first the results only from Election Day voters were posted. More than a day later, the early voting figures were provided for town and city races. The state lists the unofficial results for the three seats on the state Supreme Court in the 3rd Judicial District. The county site didn’t even list the candidates. Neither did it list totals for candidates for county treasurer and coroner, but those two candidates ran unopposed.

It is in the public interest that voters know the unofficial results of the race for district attorney, the county’s chief law enforcement officer. Instead, all we got was a message above what results there were saying: “Results do not include countywide races or propositions, which will be forthcoming.” The message was dated November 8. Click… click….

To be fair, the Election Day vote counts do provide guidance because most of the people who voted in this election cast their ballots on November 5, Election Day. In a race like the one for district attorney, where the total number of votes is high, the uncounted votes of the 7% of early voters are not going to change the overall outcome.

But in the towns, where only a handful of votes separates winners and losers in many races, the absence of the full unofficial count invites mistrust and distortion. It’s a common reaction in the fact-averse world we now inhabit. What we need is to know the reason why the numbers are not yet available. This is not a matter of assigning blame; it is an essential step in reassuring the public that the integrity of the votes cast remains intact. More went wrong than funky ballots

If the county Board of Elections needs outside help to complete the process, election commissioners must let the Board of Supervisors know. Now. And if expert assistance is the next step, this is an emergency. Do Not hide that from the public.

This will be resolved. But the job is not finished until the Board of Supervisors commissions an independent review that explains what happened in the Election of 2019 and recommends ways to prevent its repetition. There is no time to spare. We are less than a year away from the Election of 2020.

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