Municipal Math: How Fast Can You Re-Count?

Also: How much cash does a recount actually cost?

Editor’s note: This is an occasional column that presents simple math puzzles stumbled over by The Chronicle “in the wild,” while covering local government. The puzzles are meant to be accessible to kids in high school, junior high, or elementary school.

Tally Marks

Tick marks like these are the same technique used to recount elections.

On Aug. 7, 2012, ballots were cast in primary elections – to finalize the ballot choices for voters in the Nov. 6 general election.

And  last week, on Sept. 4, 2012, the Washtenaw County board of canvassers conducted a recount of some of those ballots. Several different races were recounted, including some from Augusta Township, Sylvan Township, the city of Ypsilanti, and the city of Ann Arbor.

In the city of Ann Arbor, it was the Ward 4 city council contest that was recounted. That race had offered a choice for voters between incumbent Margie Teall and Jack Eaton.

The initial count of ballots across Ward 4 showed Teall with a total of 866 votes, compared to 848 votes for Eaton. That’s a difference of 18 votes. Another way of putting that: There was an average difference of exactly two votes per precinct in Ward 4. [Warm-up puzzle: How many precincts are in Ward 4?]

In the recounted totals, each candidate lost a vote in Precinct 9. In Precinct 6, Teall picked up one vote and Eaton lost one. That left Eaton and Teall with 846 and 866 votes, respectively. So the hand-counting of the paper ballots essentially confirmed the result of the optical scanners used on election day.

I’ve now covered four recounts for The Chronicle in the last five election cycles. At a recount event, as many as four separate tables might be set up in the room. Of course, the candidates in the races being recounted and their supporters are interested in watching the recounting of the ballots – to make sure everything is done properly. So it’s typical that four or five people stand around each of the tables watching the recounting as it takes place.

The actual recounting of the ballots for a given precinct is done by three people seated at the table. One person examines each paper ballot and calls out the name of the candidate who received a vote. The two other people each record a tally mark on a grid. At the end of the recounting, the hand-recorded totals on the two grids must match each other. If they don’t, everything must be re-recounted.

So the recounting procedure depends on the ability of the talliers to hear the person who is calling out the candidate name for each ballot. Because of that, everyone in the room always observes strict silence, without even being told by members of the board of canvassers that they must be quiet.

I’m kidding. It’s always necessary for a member of the board to shush everyone – more than once. That’s because we all fall prey to the belief that we can have our own side conversations that are quiet enough not to disrupt the counting – unlike those other loudmouths.

One reason those side conversations take place is that people need a way to pass the time. That’s because watching a recount is just plain boring. (That’s how you know it’s important.) So as you’re standing there watching, you start to wonder: How long is this going to take?

And as you look at the number of people assembled in the room, some of whom are being paid $12 an hour to do the recounting, you also wonder: How much is this going to cost?

Cost of a Recount

The city of Ann Arbor sends a newsletter to its election workers called Pollwatcher. The Summer 2012 edition of  Pollwatcher included an editorial comment about the Ward 4 recount. It claimed that the recount was unnecessary and wasteful:  ”[T]axpayers’ dollars will be wasted on this needless recount.”

That’s the kind of opinion that people are free to express as individuals, but shouldn’t be free to express on behalf of the city of Ann Arbor. And the city later removed the document from its website. For my part, I think that any recount serves the useful purpose of validating the accuracy of the optical scanners.

At any rate, it’s still a fair question to ask: How much did the Ward 4 recount cost?

That all depends on what you count as a “cost” of the recount. For example, city clerk Jackie Beaudry and deputy city clerk Jennifer Alexa attended the recount – but they are not paid for that work beyond their regular city salary. You can imagine an argument that their time should be factored into the cost. But for the purposes of this puzzle, we’ll focus just on the additional cash that the city had to pay directly in connection with the recount.

The cash totals below were provided to The Chronicle by city clerk Jackie Beaudry and by Washtenaw County chief deputy clerk Ed Golembiewski.

Puzzle One:  The total cost to Washtenaw County to recount the Aug. 7 election – for Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Sylvan Township and Augusta Township – was $426.35. Washtenaw County divided the cost among the four governments based on the number of precincts that were recounted for each government. That is, each local government was charged its proportionate share, based on the number of precincts that had to be recounted. The total number of precincts recounted was 22. Of the 22 precincts to be recounted, 9 were for Ann Arbor’s Ward 4. How much was Ann Arbor’s share of the $426.35?

That’s not the whole story. Candidates in an election can’t just demand a recount willy-nilly. They need to file an application and pay $10 for each precinct that they wished to have recounted. In the case of Ann Arbor’s Ward 4, Jack Eaton had to write a check to Washtenaw County to cover that cost. And that amount was subtracted from the cost that Washtenaw County charged to the city of Ann Arbor.

But the city of Ann Arbor had additional cash costs, not involving Washtenaw County. The ballots had to be retrieved from a storage warehouse – by workers who are paid as needed on an hourly basis. That cost was $145.

Puzzle Two: Using your answer from Puzzle One, and factoring in the $90 check written by Jack Eaton and the $145 cost for the hourly workers, what was the cost per ballot to the city of Ann Arbor for the recount? (Use the recounted ballot totals for your calculation: 866 for Teall and 846 for Eaton).

How Long Does a Recount Take?

One way I pass the time at a recount is to use a stopwatch to measure the rate of recounting at different tables.

On Sept. 4, one table recounted at a rate of 10 ballots per minute. If that sounds slow to you, bear in mind that the paper ballots had two sides. Both sides of the ballot had to be checked, even though the Ward 4 city council race was just on one side. That’s because sometimes people try to vote in both the Republican and Democratic primary – and it’s not hard to make that mistake, because both sets of candidates are printed on the same sheet of paper. If someone “cross votes,” that ballot is not counted.

Puzzle Three: Assume a counting rate of 10 ballots per minute. How long, measured in hours, minutes, and seconds, would it take to count 1,712 ballots?

Solutions to puzzles are welcome in the comments section.

Post Script: Ballot Length

The physical layout of the ballots for the upcoming Nov. 6, 2012 general election has been finalized for all the governments in Washtenaw County. Chief deputy clerk Ed Golembiewski, who also serves as Washtenaw County director of elections, told The Chronicle in a phone interview that all the items finally did fit on a single sheet of paper. That’s significant, because Golembiewski said that early in the process, it looked like two sheets of paper would be required to make all the items fit.

So for this election anyway, we will not have to contemplate the added complications and delays that a two-sheet ballot would cause on election day. And if there’s a recount, only one sheet of paper will need to be recounted.

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