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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: Why the Ada recount will take a month or more

A sample ballot is seen in Idaho Falls, Idaho on election day Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (John Roark / AP)
A sample ballot is seen in Idaho Falls, Idaho on election day Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (John Roark / AP)

With recounts pending both for the College of Western Idaho levy, which failed by just 144 votes in Ada and Canyon counties combined, and the District 15 state Senate seat, in which incumbent Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise, edged his Democratic challenger Jim Bratnober by just six votes, Ada County has a lengthy process ahead of it.

That’s because of the process it’ll have to go through, the systems in place, and the sheer number of ballots involved.

Phil McGrane, chief deputy Ada County clerk and clerk-elect, said Idaho’s recount requirements changed in 2015, and they’re significant. First, counties must take a sample of 5 percent of the ballots cast, and count them by hand. Then that same sample is run through the tallying machines.

“The purpose is to test to make sure the machines are accurate,” McGrane said.

If the results match up, then all ballots are recounted by machine. But if they don’t – if they vary by 1 percent or more – “then you hand-count everything,” McGrane said.

Typically, recounts in recent years have involved just a few precincts, so the sample that gets hand-counted has been 100 to 200 ballots, McGrane said. But for the Ada County portion of the two-county CWI levy vote, the sample alone is roughly 9,600 ballots.

“It takes four people to hand-count each ballot,” McGrane said: one to read the results, another to mark them down, and two more to double-check the first two, watching over their shoulders.

Typically in the past, McGrane said, a team of four from his staff has worked through the hand-count for a recount, taking most of a day. “But that’s for hundreds, not thousands,” he said. “We think it will take two to three weeks just to do the hand-count portion.”

Research shows that hand-counts are actually more likely to have errors than machine counts, McGrane said, so it’s extremely important to make sure the hand-count is accurate.

And then, even after that, Ada County will need about a week just to do the machine-count of all ballots, he said. That’s because the county’s voting system is designed for efficiency on election night, with more than 300 precinct scanners that scan and count ballots at the precincts, with the central count system just tallying absentee ballots. In a recount, the precinct scanners won’t be used; the central system will have to tally all ballots.

“It took us about six hours to count the 26,000 absentee ballots,” McGrane said. “So multiply that to 192,000 – it’s going to take a long time.”

In addition, this year’s election involved a two-page ballot, with entries on both sides of both pages. “Arguably, we don’t have to count the second page, but the process of trying to sort out the second pages is not worth the risk, so we will just count everything,” McGrane said.

“It’s just going to take quite a while. Accuracy is by far our focus in this endeavor, so we will take our time to make sure we are accurate.”

The Senate race recount will be done at the same time as the CWI levy recount, McGrane said.

There are several procedural steps that have to come first, including the official canvass of the votes by both Ada and Canyon counties and by the state; Ada commissioners completed their canvass last week. The state canvass certifies the official results in legislative, state and congressional races, and will occur on Tuesday.

McGrane said he expects the recounts to begin sometime the week after Thanksgiving.

Little starts transition

Idaho Gov.-elect Brad Little has opened a transition office at the Alexander House, named Boise attorney Brian Wonderlich as his transition chair, and announced that he’s accepting applications for positions in his administration; he takes office in January.

“Over the last decade, I have met with many people who want to serve their fellow Idahoans and are very qualified to serve in state government,” Little said in a statement. “We now have a place where we can start putting our team together.”

Little said information about how to apply to be part of the new administration is online at his transition website, Also on the site: an extensive list of documents from state agencies detailing their history, statutory authority, staffing, facilities, and short- and long-term priorities.

Hauge named chief of staff

Zach Hauge, who managed Little’s campaign, has been selected as Little’s chief of staff.

“Zach knows who I am, what I expect, and how to best assist me in carrying out my goals for Idaho,” Little said. “In selecting Zach for this role, I am confident he will uphold the values of the Office of Governor. We will work together to maintain integrity and transparency as we continue to frame decisions for the state through the lens of providing the best environment for future generations to stay in Idaho, and for the ones who have left to return.”

Hauge served as Little’s campaign manager in both the primary and general elections this year. Prior to that, he was vice president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, an influential business lobbying group.

Hauge called the appointment “an honor and a privilege.”

“I understand the responsibility I have to the governor-elect and the people of Idaho to uphold the values of the state,” he said, “while working with the next governor to promote continued prosperity for all Idahoans.”

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