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Checking It Twice

Election officials have had no practical way to guarantee a correct ballot count—until now

By
5:24pm, January 17, 2008

Counting is hard. Neither people nor machines seem to be able to do it reliably. And that's a nightmare for election officials who need an accurate ballot count to decide elections.

Eighteen states require officials to double-check the machine counts by hand for a portion of the ballots. But election officials have had little guidance on what to do with the recount results. If the election is close and the recount finds a few errors, should a registrar call for a larger recount or go ahead and certify the result? Most laws left it to their discretion.

Now Philip Stark, a statistician at the University of California, Berkeley, has developed a recount method that guarantees a 99 percent chance that the result is the same as it would be with a full hand count. Several counties in California plan to try out the method on ballot measures during the presidential primaries this year. If this trial and others go smoothly, California could adopt the method statewide.

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