March 12, 2010

Write-in Senate votes don't add up

— Marian Budzyna of Limerick was under no illusions when she went to the polls on Nov. 4, checked ''other'' on her state election ballot and carefully wrote in ''Herbert Hoffman'' as her choice for Maine's U.S. Senate seat.

Like everyone else, Budzyna knew that Hoffman, who ran largely on an anti-war platform, had no chance to beat Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican incumbent, or U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, the Democratic challenger. Still, she voted for Hoffman to tell the world that she, for one, thought he was the best person for the job.

Problem is, the world never got her message. Budzyna's vote, like other write-ins in communities all over Maine, simply wasn't counted.

''Not to count a person's vote is disenfranchisement,'' Budzyna said Monday. ''It's as simple as that.''

Since Election Day, Hoffman and his supporters have heard from citizens in at least a dozen Maine communities who voted for him -- only to find a zero under ''other'' when the U.S. Senate tallies for their hometowns appeared weeks later on the Maine secretary of state's Web site.

And it appears they're not alone: A review of the Web site shows no ''other'' U.S. Senate votes recorded in 397 of Maine's 512 municipalities, including goose eggs in such large communities as Scarborough, Augusta, Skowhegan, Lewiston, Auburn, Dover-Foxcroft, Presque Isle and Caribou. Not a single ''other'' vote was recorded anywhere in Franklin County, which includes the university town of Farmington.

All of which makes you wonder: Did the three officially ''declared write-in candidates'' for U.S. Senate -- Hoffman, Laurie Dobson of Kennebunkport and Roscoe Bartlett of Appleton -- collectively receive only 620 votes statewide as reported by the Secretary of State's Office?

Or were an untold number of write-in votes, for reasons ranging from fatigue to equipment failure to lack of education for poll workers, simply not counted?

''That now becomes my problem,'' replied Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. ''And I'm not exactly sure what the answer to that problem is. But I'm going to find it.''

In Limerick, at least, the problem was painfully simple. Maureen Libby, the town's election warden, said there were actually five write-in votes cast for U.S. Senate, but none was entered on the ''Return of Total Votes Cast Form'' forwarded to the secretary of state.

''It's certainly not our policy to disenfranchise any voter in this town,'' Libby said. ''It was, I'm afraid, a simple human error.''

Libby said the problem apparently stems from the secretary of state's list of ''declared write-in candidates'' -- those who submit a signed and notarized declaration of candidacy to the state no later than three business days before the election.

The list, which Dunlap said is sent to all municipalities, helps workers distinguish write-ins that are legitimate (Hoffman, Dobson or Bartlett) from those that aren't (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck or Elmer Fudd).

But if Dunlap's list was sent to Limerick, Libby said, it never found its way to her. Thus, with no guide as to who's real and who isn't, poll workers there disregarded all five write-ins for U.S. Senate (along with 47 votes for seven other offices, including 12 for president).

''I received the (state guidelines for) opening the polls and closing the polls,'' Libby said. ''If the (declared write-in list) was not in that, then I missed it.''

Dunlap said two strategies might help prevent write-in evaporation in future elections.

One is replacing Maine's electronic ballot scanners -- currently there are four different types in use -- with a uniform model that will correctly identify all write-in votes, even if they're flawed, and isolate them for hand inspection and counting.

The other solution, Dunlap said, is to better educate local poll workers about the importance of identifying declared-write-in candidates and adding their numbers to the historical record.

As for the just-completed election, Limerick voter Budzyna has her own suggestion.

''Count them over,'' she said. ''If it's not right the first time, do it again. Don't we have the right to have our votes counted? Isn't that the basis of democracy?''

Yes and no.

Dunlap said he lacks the authority to reopen all the sealed ballot boxes and start counting over. And since there's no chance an upward tick in the ''other'' column could in any way affect the outcome, he said, it would hardly make fiscal sense to do a statewide recount at this late date.

''But I think we need to put a great deal more focus on how we handle the write-in issue,'' Dunlap said. ''It's easy to say, ''Five votes -- so what?' But every vote should count.''

Try telling that to Hoffman, who earned considerable name recognition this year as he went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in his unsuccessful quest to get his name on the ballot as an independent. The more he hears from supporters whose votes for him vanished in places like South Berwick, Augusta and Orland, to name a few, the more obvious it becomes that he'll never truly know how he did on Election Day.

What's more, Hoffman warned, it's a slippery slope from ignoring write-ins in races where they don't affect the outcome to those in county and local races where they might in fact be pivotal.

''I was so convinced that Maine was one of the pure states in terms of ballot integrity,'' Hoffman said. ''And I feel badly to have to come to the conclusion that that's not accurate.''

Nor, for the record, are those U.S. Senate returns.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

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