Column: Undercurrents: Reporting on Alameda County’s Election ‘Delay’

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday June 09, 2006

The job of the news media is supposed to be to report on the news as we find it. 

But sometimes, some of us in the profession get a little excited and report on the news as we want it to be rather than as it actually is, so that the reporting or editing process itself can push reality in the direction we want it to go. Our good friends at Fox “News” Channel are most often accused of this overeagerness to shape rather than to reflect. 

So did our other friends at the San Francisco Chronicle over the way Alameda County chose to count our votes in the other night’s elections. 

In case you have not been following these events, Alameda County chose to move to electronic touchscreen voting several years ago, purchasing the machines put out by the Diebold company (the same company whose owner pledged to work for a George Bush victory). 

But when a new California law went into effect in January, mandating that all electronic voting machines produce a paper trail to prove that the electronic vote count has not been tampered with, Alameda County was forced to abandon the old Diebold machines, which did not have such a paper trail. Because the county could not purchase the new machines by last Tuesday’s primary election, the county decided to conduct the election with hand-marked paper ballots counted by scanners at a central location in downtown Oakland. 

But for some reason, the folks at the Chronicle did not seem to understand—or communicate—those simple facts in their recent election stories. 

In a June 2 Chronicle article a few days before the election entitled “Hand Count Of Alameda Ballots Could Delay Election Results,” Associated Press writer Samantha Young wrote that “Alameda county’s return to low-tech voting Tuesday could make for a long evening for poll workers and leave the neck-and-neck Democratic gubernatorial primary undecided overnight.” Ms. Young added that “the county's inability to quickly process paper ballots after shelving its electronic voting machines may make Alameda the determining factor because 5.7 percent of the state’s registered Democrats live there,” and also noted that the county “is in a jam because they do not have enough optical scanners to count the ballots at all polling places.” 

Note the code words here that all denote bad things happening or projected to happen by the Chronicle: “delay,” “low-tech,” “long evening,” “undecided,” “inability to quickly process,” “shelving,” “in a jam,” and “do not have enough.” 

On the Wednesday following the election, the Chronicle published a story by staff writer Rick DelVecchio telling us that the predicted result had, indeed, occurred, the headline reading that “Hand-Counting Delays Results In Alameda County.” “Alameda County election workers were hand-counting some 200,000 ballots late Tuesday,” Mr. DelVecchio wrote, “and county officials said the job would take hours to finish—long enough to delay close gubernatorial and Oakland mayoral contest final results until late this morning.” 

Whether or not that statement was actually correct depends upon your definition of the word “delay.” 

At 11 o’clock on Tuesday night, a time when most voters stay up to view the election results on the news, almost none of the closely-contested Oakland mayoral race votes had been counted (Dellums was leading De La Fuente 44 percent to 36 percent, with less than 1 percent of the total in). But the lack of substantial results at 11 o’clock is hardly unusual in any close election, regardless of how the votes are being counted. 

At 8 o’clock on Wednesday morning, when I got to my computer and went to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters website, more than 98 percent of the precincts had been counted in the mayoral election. Within a half an hour, that figure had jumped to 100 percent, with Dellums winning 50.2 percent of the unofficial count. So by the time most people were leaving for work in the morning the day after the election, the available vote totals were in and reported. 

We also learned that the race was still undecided, and that absentee and provisional ballots were yet to be counted.  

Again, in a close election (“close” being the amount of votes Mr. Dellums needed to avoid a runoff), having a race undecided by the morning after the election is not unusual. 

So the uncertainty of the final outcome has less to do with the “delay” in counting the votes—this is the time provisional ballots are counted, under any circumstances—but with the closeness of the race itself. And given that a November runoff may be necessary, and the new mayor will not take office until next January in any event, what’s the problem with the wait of a day or so to determine the outcome? 

And one must remember that the “delay” in the Oakland results were only in the mayor’s race. In the Districts 2 and 6 Council races, the 16th Assembly seat race, and the Measure A and B bond elections, the results were available about the same time as coffee and eggs and the Chronicle article on Wednesday morning announcing that “Hand-Counting Delays Results”.  

Meanwhile, there were other problems with the Chronicle’s reporting on Tuesday’s elections in Alameda County. 

“The delay,” Mr. DelVecchio wrote in his Wednesday story (there’s that word again) “was triggered by the county's decision in March to get rid of its high-tech, touch-screen voting machines, which were widely criticized because they couldn't produce paper records.” This makes it look like Alameda County had a choice in the matter. 

In fact, as we have noted above, Alameda County could not use the Diebold touchscreen machines any more because of a change in state law, so there was no “decision to get rid of” the Diebold machines by Alameda County. The decision was made by the state legislature, and affected any county using a touchscreen screen without paper trail capabilities. 

And in her June 2 Chronicle article, Ms. Young wrote that Alameda County officials “hope to sell or trade the [Diebold] touchscreen machines for upgraded models that meet the new requirements. The new machines should be delivered before the November election, although the county is still in negotiations with several companies.” 

That gives the impression that Alameda County is contemplating the continued use of touchscreen voting machines as the general method of voting for the November elections and beyond. 

Actually, what Alameda County decided on at a special Thursday Supervisors meeting this week is the continued use of paper ballots for most voters in the November election and beyond, along with the purchase of scanning machines so that each precinct would have its own scanner (remember, last Tuesday, all of the scanning was done by a limited number of scanning machines at a central location in Oakland). Touchscreen voting machines will also be used in November, but only a limited number designed specifically to accomodate handicapped voters who come to the polls and desire to vote without assistance. Given the success of Tuesday’s elections—and the lack of significant delay in reporting the results—county supervisors could have even voted to save money by not purchasing any new scanners and continue to do a centralized vote count with the scanners the county already has. 

In any event, it is “interesting,” isn’t it (always a word I like to use), that the Chronicle seems so obsessed about vote-count delays in Alameda County that never actually happened, and that the Chronicle articles seem so bent towards pushing the Alameda County to purchase electronic touchscreen voting machines that the county has not determined that it needs. 

One wonders why.