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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Paper Ballot Surplus: Much Ado About (Almost) Nothing

Ballot1The Albuquerque Journal seems to be ever-vigilant about certain types of perceived errors or wrongdoing on the part of Dems that can be used for political fodder. Lately, it's been hitting hard on the existence of a surplus of paper ballots for New Mexico's June 3rd primary. Given their continuing front-page coverage of this issue, you'd think it constituted a scandal of epic proportions. The problem is, their reporters don't ask the right questions to get at the facts or the real problems. Many Journal reporters seem to have that habit -- or at least that's how their editorial bosses make them look.

Almost Flawless Election in Bernalillo County
The Journal started out hitting Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who just happens to be a Dem running for re-election this Fall against Repub challenger Richard Abraham. By all accounts, Oliver ran one of the most problem-free elections in recent years on June 3rd. She added three more early voting sites, effectively communicated important voting info to the public, operated with maximum transparency and improved poll worker training. The election went off without a major hitch. No long lines. No shortage of ballots. Timely reporting of election results. Everyone who wanted to vote got to do so easily and quickly -- a real success in a county that has experience election problems in the past.

The GOP: Always Whining
The smoothly run election must have irritated GOP operatives who like to whine about fake "voter fraud," despite their accusations being found to be thoroughly without merit, time and time again. This is the bunch who is also up at arms because New Mexico switched to a paper ballot system that replaced dreaded touchscreen and other electronic voting machines proven to be unreliable and hackable. You know, the machines being banned all over the nation because they lack any verifiable way to ensure votes are counted accurately. The GOP hacks consider the switch to paper ballots a step backward, probably because paper ballots provide a permanent record of what goes down on election day.

Whipping Up a "Scandal"
It's common knowledge that the Journal has always been highly amenable to regurgitating GOP talking points. I think the paper ballot oversupply "scandal" is just one more instance of this propensity.

The Journal keeps repeating that it cost $1.3 million for the 1.5 million unused paper ballots that were shredded after June 3rd, and wringing their hands about how much this cost taxpayers. Oh, shame on the Bernalillo County Clerk for following the formula for ballot printing designated by the Secretary of State. This, after the Journal made it a virtual crusade to milk the story of insufficient ballots for February's Dem Party presidential caucus for maximum political gain. Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

First off, the Journal cites a per-ballot price of 93 cents. Based on that, they total up how much extra it cost for the surplus ballot supply. The problem is that everybody (except, apparently, the Journal reporters) knows that printing costs aren't figured like that. The main costs come from the set-up and initial run of the job. As more and more copies are printed, the unit cost actually goes down.

Say the print job costs $150,000 for an initial run of 200,000. A significant portion of that pays for the intial set-up. Each additional copy printed after the 200,000 will cost substantially less because the set-up costs have already been offset. The farther away you get from the initial run, the less the per-copy cost. So there's no way that the surplus ballots cost 93 cents each. They may still have been overpriced, but the figuring is off.

The Journal did have to reveal that similar numbers of surplus ballots were printed in the past. And that many extra ballots have to be printed to serve early voting sites that require 850 different versions of the ballot needed for precincts that might have voters show up. But they still insist that there was extensive "waste" in this primary, and then place the "blame" on officeholders who just happen to be Dems.

Start Investigating the Real Culprits
I wish Journal reporters would target the real culprits making our elections such expensive affairs -- the big, mostly Repub-owned corporations that produce, sell and service modern voting equipment and materials. The way things are run in Bush World pretty much dictates that election officials must go to one or another of these often secretive and monopolistic vendors for what's needed in elections. ES&S, Automated Election Services, Diebold (now Premier Election Solutions) and a few others dominate the business of elections. They sometimes tend to jack up costs and keep everything proprietary so no-one knows what's going on inside the machines.

A handful of corporations literally owns American elections, and they force election officials to buy on their terms and enter into expensive maintenance and other contracts after their systems are purchased. It's a very lucrative racket, especially when you consider how unreliable their equipment and services have often proved to be. The public needs to be informed about these kinds of issues so pressure can be brought to convince government representative to fix the problems pronto.

Having a generous supply of extra ballots is part of the solution, not part of the problem. So is switching to voter verifiable paper ballots, as we've done in New Mexico. We're definitely moving in the right direction with our elections, even if some new problems emerge as we move into the paper ballot era. Let's praise election officials when praise is due, as in the case of the Bernalillo County Clerk.

Concentrate on Informing the Public
Another good idea for local journalists would be to provide more in-depth, quality reporting on local and national politics year-round so that more potential voters are knowledgeable and excited about participating in voting. As it stands, a 30% or so turnout of registered voters is considered excellent in these parts. And don't even begin contemplating the huge numbers of our citizens who aren't even registered.

Don't you wish the Journal would try to do something about improving its political coverage instead of pounding on an election official who's done a knock-out job so far? Less pseudo-scandals and rumor-mongering; more fact-based reporting on issues, candidates and voting, please.

It's fine to investigate the surplus ballot issue and whether it would be workable to have print-on-demand ballots at early voting sites or pursue other improvements. But making this story a front-page "scandal" for days on end is just more politically biased BS in my book. Much ado about (almost) nothing, but rife with the juicy anti-Dem innuendo too many in our local media are so fond of.

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June 12, 2008 at 03:57 PM in 2008 Bernalillo County Elections, Election Reform & Voting, Media | Permalink

Comments

Sorry, I'm not buying the printing costs argument. Kinkos would have run them for six cents a piece, even the first hundred thousand.

Somebody made way too much money on the ballots, and that is the trail that the Journal really should be following.

Posted by: ched macquigg | Jun 12, 2008 8:25:21 PM

You can't have Kinkos print official election ballots. There has to be internal control and the ballots are printed not copied. Otherwise there would be hundreds of ballots floating around uncontrolled.

Of course the vendor should have printed them for a more reasonable price but you can't have just anyone print them. There are legal standards.

Posted by: V. B. | Jun 12, 2008 11:05:08 PM

But that is a valid point in that they cost at least .89 cents each. That seems like a high price, even when they are each printed and not copied.

Also, I have not seen anywhere who or what company actually is the one responsible for printing the ballots.

I think its important to have more ballots than not enough. I do think the bigger story if any is the actual price of the ballot. We need to make sure these places aren't ripping us off like Halliburton is in Iraq.(I know not nearly the same scale, but it goes under wasted tax payer money that could go elsewhere)

For example, another story tells of a 20K grant given to the county to have mock elections. Could the ballots have been reduced to a price that would have allowed for at least that much more money to be saved so that not only 4 high schools are helped but all high schools in B.County?? Something to think about.

Posted by: JD | Jun 13, 2008 1:02:12 AM

You're really paying for relatively small runs for each of the 850 types of ballots. That's why it's costly. You have to set up the job individually for each type of ballot.

Posted by: JJ | Jun 13, 2008 1:57:22 AM

Damned if you do and damned if you don't.
According to the Urinal, if you're a Democrat you're just plain damned. However, the voters have been blessed (by the County Commission, no less) to have Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the first competent Bernalillo County Clerk in more than a decade. That statement also reveals my opinion of our do-nothing, know-nothing Secretary of State. /snark

Posted by: Proud Democrat | Jun 13, 2008 3:43:39 AM

(Scene: staff meeting room, Bernco County Clerk's Office)

Maggie Toulouse Oliver (MTO): Okay, to avoid the high costs of printing multiple ballots prior to an election, we're going to an on-demand system to print on-site.

County Clerk Employee (CCE) #1: Huh?

MTO: Yeah, we'll have computers hooked up to printers with all the myriad combinations of ballots within easy access.

CCE #2: Did you say computers? I don't feel too comfortable working with those things.

CCE #3: Yeah, and my brother has one of them there computers, and he's always looking at bad stuff on it, at least that's what my sister-in-law tells me.

CCE #4: I don't trust 'em, either, and besides weren't we supposed to stay away from computer voting and use paper?

MTO (calmly as possible): Yes, we will still use paper ballots, but we can print them right at the voting precinct.

CCE #1: But what about the State and that ballot-making formula and stuff? Ain't it illegal to not use the state contractor and that there formula?

MTO (calmness diminishing ever so slightly): Uh, no, it's not illegal, in fact it's the very best way to make sure everyone gets a ballot and with reasonable costs.

CCE #2: Well, I don't know, we've never done it this before. Back when good 'ol Ms. Herrera was here we never had problems like this.

CCE #3: Good 'ol Mary, things have just gone downhill since she left.

MTO (calmness finally disappearing): Are you people crazy? Bernalillo Country was the laughingstock of the nation with...never mind, I have to take a walk down the hall.

CCE #4: You sure take alot of walks, Ms. Toulouse Oliver, we've never had somebody take as many walks as you before.

CCE #1: Nope, never have. I've been here 27 years and never such seen a walker.

CCE #2: Mary Herrera never took walk one when she was here. Never. And now she's Secretary of State. Keep that in mind fancy computers and "On-Demand Printing", whatever the heck that is.

MTO (deep sigh): Oh, buddy. (leaves staff meeting room) Oh, buddy.

Posted by: scot | Jun 13, 2008 8:09:04 AM

Maggie and her staff did a wonderful job of running the smoothest election I have witnessed in the 14 years I have lived here. The ABQ journal was just upset that they couldn't rerun their standard story of a problem plagued election (which they have on standby to add whatever new names they need to) and therefore had nothing to run in the paper the next day. Dang! They may actually have to work and put a real story together, like most journalist do.

Posted by: woodstock | Jun 13, 2008 10:34:26 AM

Scot you made me laugh this morning.

I understand AES was awarded the contract to print the ballots by the Sec of State. I don't know if other vendors bid on the job or if there are other venders here that could handle the specialized job. Wish the Journal reporters would ask about that but I guess they aren't interested.

There are pros and cons to the different approaches to providing ballots. Any good system will cost money. You get what you pay for and there is much more waste in other less important government spending here.

Posted by: Old Dem | Jun 13, 2008 11:04:42 AM

hey woodstock where have you guys been?

Posted by: mary ellen | Jun 13, 2008 3:58:40 PM

Flawless Election???

Bernalillo County only had to count around 14,000 absentees this go around. Santa Fe County 1,400! Thats right 1400! The General Election Bernalillo County will see upwards of 70,000 absentee ballots. No matter how many early voting stations, the polls will be packed also! Hence, the amount of Provisional Ballots will be around 20,000 this time... only then can we judge are so very "competent" County Clerk. This primary election was nothing more than the same turnout usually seen in a school bond election. 50% undecided means that almost half of people polled in the days before the election did NOT care for those that were running! Ordinary New Mexicans are NOT interested in Heinrich! They have an overall feeling like our Congressional Representation will not be very significant in the country's well being overall! Hopefully, Heinrich wins on the coat tails of the Obama popularity and even then, he would certainly draw a challenge after his first 2 year term. Udall should be most scared. Incompetent State Party and lack of local candidate popularity equates to a loss for Mr. Udall. CD1 was very important to Udall & Obama in terms of winning NM. Largest County! Lujan supporters up north will vote Straight Dem, but not Teague supporters and many Dems in Bern. Co. will go with McCain as they do time and time again ... Heather Wilson Dems!

Posted by: | Jun 14, 2008 12:36:10 PM

I see we've got a naysayer spitting out nontruths, half truths and negative spin. It's too bad that people like those that write comments like this one don't sign up to be election workers and get all their friends to do the same. People like to whine and complain but the real cause for most voting problems is people who won't help staff polling sites or count.

I've heard one of the problems with this election was that so many people signed up to work cancelled at the last minute or didn't show up. My guess is some of them want to make the county clerk look bad. She doesn't have the right last name.

I guess union workers, teachers, office workers and retain workers aren't "ordinary people" to you. They all came out strongly for Heinrich. Again, what you really seem to be saying is that he doesn't have the right last name. Stop being racist and start judging candidates on their merit.

There weren't "50% undecided" except in your own mind. Republicans had the worst turnout so your arguments about November are silly.

The State Party has been doing a great job. Udall is ahead by more than 20 points and has big big support in CD1. I don't know where you're getting your "fact" but most of them are dead wrong or wishful thinking.

If Democrats vote for McCain they'll get what they deserve. A half crazy old man who can't make sense if he speaks more than two sentences. He wants to privatize social security. He has no plan to expand health care coverage. He's for more war and votes agains veterans interests. Yeah go for it and see what you get.

Posted by: red or green | Jun 14, 2008 2:07:36 PM

Trolls, are so funny. Spewing a lot of wishful thinking with nothing to back the phony claims. When desperation sets in try anything and hope for the best. After 7.5 years of the WORST President EVER along comes John McSame and the 28% (non thinkers) want a repeat, unbelievable!

Posted by: VP | Jun 14, 2008 9:06:39 PM