Editorial: Count every last one of them ballots

We’re not quite back to the days of dimpled, hanging or pregnant chads, but we’re close.
Remember those arcane terms? They refer to the tiny paper discs left behind by Florida’s punch card voting machines after the polls closed in Florida during the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. With the presidency hanging in the balance, those little bits of paper, which some said left a voter’s intentions in doubt, were key in determining the winner of Florida’s 25 electoral votes. Whoever took Florida would take the White House in the closest presidential election since 1876.
Through a split decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, those electoral votes went to Mr. Bush, making him the 43rd president. A full decade has passed, but Gore supporters still fervently believe that the GOP stole the election.
To prevent a similar occurrence in future elections, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, ironically signed by Mr. Bush in 2002. Its purpose? To replace punch cards as well as lever machines, which have been used in Suffolk County for generations but were considered problematic because they left no record of individual votes.
That brings us to this past Election Day, the first full-scale test of the county’s new electronic vote counters. As everyone who voted now knows, the process requires using a pen to fill in the circle next to candidates’ names and sliding the paper ballot into the tabulator. Fortunately, that system leaves no hanging or pregnant chads, but it caused considerable confusion nonetheless.
Some voters simply made a check mark, which doesn’t register in the machines. Others mistakenly marked two or more candidates for the same race, also not valid. Whether this system will ultimately prove to be fair and accurate remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt that it’s far from perfect.
The races for the First Congressional and First Assembly districts attest to that. On election night, incumbent Congressman Tim Bishop seemed to enjoy a solid 3,500-vote lead over Republican challenger Randy Altschuler. But a second look by the Board of Elections resulted in a 4,000-vote swing in Altschuler’s favor. Similarly, Assemblyman Marc Alessi was initially down by just 40 votes, but the gap has since widened significantly.
It will take time, but the only fair and logical response is to hand-count each ballot — that is, before the lawyers bring it all to court. Perhaps we need a Help Suffolk Vote Act to prevent a repeat next year.