Following a campaign season plagued by allegations of vote tampering, an error on ballots distributed at all of Mobile County’s 88 precincts last Tuesday caused all votes cast against one local referendum to go uncounted.
On the night of the election, 165,709 ballots were collected locally. However, a referendum authorizing the county’s Pay As You Go (PAYG) program, which finances local infrastructure improvements, recorded tens of thousands of “yes” votes without a single vote in opposition to the annual program.
As the results continued to trickle in last week, Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis told reporters it was “a little odd” to see zero votes against any proposed amendment, but at the time said he didn’t know if the county had ever seen a similar result.“It’s the last thing on the ballot, and a lot of people didn’t vote for any of the constitutional amendments at all,” Davis said last Friday. “There was no organized opposition to it; it’s a popular program and there’s no increase in taxes.”
However, by Nov. 11, Davis had confirmed that “human error” had caused machines to incorrectly read any votes against the program as blank — an across-the-board problem reported in all 191 of the county’s ballot counters.
The tabulation machines used in Mobile County and throughout Alabama are manufactured by Elections Systems & Software (ES&S), which had a role in 43 other statewide elections this year. According to Kathy Rodgers, senior vice president of government relations, the problem started when a second version of the Pay As You Go amendment was drafted for the ballot.
An initial version left off some required language, though the company had successfully added it to a second draft of the ballot by the time the machines went through their required testing a week before the general election.
However, Rodgers said state officials later requested a statewide change on ballots, and in making those changes, ES&S inadvertently failed to use the updated language in the local referendum — language the machines had already been programmed to account for.“In essence, when we put in the ‘for and against’ summary language, it moved the position of the ovals on the ballot — shifting them down just slightly,” Rodgers said. “This was a human error. The machines worked properly, but the oval was not in the right place and the ‘no’ votes simply came up as blank.”
Mark Kelly, vice president of printing services at ES&S, said he’s only seen “one or two” instances like this in his 31-year career. Taking responsibility for the mistake, Kelly said ES&S would cover any cost the county incurs performing the recount that will be required.
According to Davis, that recount will be conducted by poll workers on Nov. 16 and should be completed by the Nov. 18 deadline to submit certified election results to Secretary of State John Merrill’s office.
On Monday, Merrill’s chief of staff, David Brewer, said the problem with the Pay As You Go referendum had prompted at least 12 formal complaints since the election, though he did say it was the only significant error reported in the entire state.
While state election officials were “satisfied” with the explanation ES&S gave, Attorney General Luther Strange’s office is also said to be “reviewing the matter.”
Still, Brewer concluded there was “nothing local officials nor the Mobile County Commission could have done” to prevent the problem — affirming that probate staff performed all the necessary tests and securely sealed voting machines prior to the election.
This week, Davis called the issue the “perfect storm,” saying not only did “the procedure fail,” but so did the “testing data” ES&S provided.“It’s regrettable this happened because we put great emphasis on the integrity of our elections in Mobile County,” Davis said. “The silver lining is that if this had to happen, it wasn’t in a candidate race, and the issue isn’t very contested. It’s also pointed us toward some steps we’ll need to take in the future.”
Another silver lining is the fact that the local referendum was the very last section on Mobile County’s ballot because, according to Kelly, “had there been something below, it would have likely been affected as well.”
Regardless, Rodgers said there is empirical data showing other races weren’t impacted, adding that ES&S is “100 percent confident that every other race on the ballot is correct.”
When mistakes like the one in Mobile County are caught, Rodgers said, they show the efficiency of the systems already in place to ensure the integrity of the democratic process.
“You can trust that your ballot is counted accurately because folks like this make sure that your votes are counted accurately, though it is still a very human process,” Rodgers said. “Millions upon millions of votes were counted last week, and though things like this do occasionally happen, they are transparent to the public. We’re not trying to hide this because we want to make sure everybody knows how it occurred and how we can correctly report those totals.”
With absentee ballots included, there were 93,898 in favor of approving the Pay As You Go program and only 308 votes against it. Even after all the Nov. 8 ballots are recounted, it’s extremely unlikely a program that’s been consistently approved for three decades would be voted down.
If the trend holds, Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson told Lagniappe the slight delay won’t have any effect of the road projects the county pays for using bond revenue generated by the program.