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Woster: America runs on local election workers

I believe the country will survive nearly any president or member of Congress. I’m not sure we’ll make it if we start driving our election workers and officials from their duties.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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In June of 1978, The Associated Press made a rare election-night error and called the wrong winner in the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor in South Dakota.

When I say AP, I mean me. I called the wrong winner.

The error didn’t stand for more than a few minutes, but that was long enough for a fair number of news outlets to repeat the information and for me to field calls from both campaigns, several other politically active folks I knew and the AP’s General Desk in New York City.

The error resulted from a simple thing. In those days, we phoned each county auditor, took their vote totals for each race and did the math. We hired callers and counters.

Each one handled 10 or 12 counties. When all counties had reported, the counters added their totals, and we had a final tally.

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One counter thought he'd save some time, so when he got half a dozen counties’ complete totals, he made a subtotal and used that the rest of the evening. That would have been great, except that he made a mistake and built a 500-plus vote error into the subtotal. That error carried through the evening, affecting the numbers I used to call the race. I should have seen that the numbers didn’t quite make sense, but I didn’t.

(Aside: I quit drinking a few months after that election. I’ll never know if I’d have seen something iffy in the numbers if I’d been sober. That’s a topic for another time.)

For a while, the error caused an uproar in both candidates’ election-night headquarters. It also embarrassed the AP generally and me personally. I don’t think of it often, but when I do, I’m still embarrassed.

I recount that moment to make a point. My miscount is the sort of mistake that can happen on election night. It shouldn’t, it usually doesn’t, but it can. When errors in vote counts or totals happen, it’s almost always discovered quickly. It’s usually some human miscue, now and then a machine breakdown that delays a count. Most such incidents don’t affect the outcome, as mine ultimately didn’t.

When I read about movements to overhaul the voting systems in one state or another, when I hear people talk about how elections have been taken over by some mysterious group or force, it bothers me a great deal.

Up to this point, with few exceptions, our elections have been safe. Yes, we hear stories every year about voting from graveyards and people voting several times and hundreds of thousands of lost ballots or fraudulent ballots.

Those things are checked out, litigated if necessary and settled. Nearly always, it’s a few votes, a misunderstanding, a baseless rumor. When there are legitimate issues, they are handled with legal challenges through the courts. For most of my adult life, the decisions in such challenges have been accepted by nearly all of us.

It isn’t quite so cut-and-dried these days. A vocal minority continues to call the last presidential election rigged, a fraud. Credible evidence of wide-spread fraud or error hasn’t been found, even after 60 or more lawsuits. Here’s something I’d find laughable if it weren’t such a serious matter. People who won their races on the same ballots as the presidential choices have no issue with their own success. If they won, it was legit, I guess.

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This is my opinion, but it’s based on experience. I covered four decades of elections. I have spent long election nights in the secretary of state’s office, and I have spent long election nights in various county auditors’ offices. The people in those offices wanted only to have a fair, clean and open election with correct totals that show the correct winner. The ones I’ve known at every level are decent, honest and absolutely conscientious about their jobs.

They’re some of the best public officials and servants we have. We should be thanking them for their service.

I believe the country will survive nearly any president or member of Congress. I’m not sure we’ll make it if we start driving our election workers and officials from their duties.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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