[Image courtesy of mnartists.org]
Years ago, I worked for the U.S. Senate Rules Committee - which, in addition to its legislative responsibilities (including elections!), manages office space on the Senate Office Buildings. In many ways, we were like the landlord of the Senate side of Capitol Hill, and with 100 high-profile tenants with strong personalities there was always something that needed attention. Consequently, we often used the following joke to explain our non-legislative duties: "The good news is that we don't have to sweat the small stuff; the bad news is that there is no small stuff."
I was reminded of those days recently as I read the stories out of Illinois concerning optical scan ballots that were too wide and thus had to be trimmed by scissors in order to be read by scanners. The problem was traceable to a single printing vendor whose cutting blade was misaligned and left ballots at the top of each shrink-wrapped bundle slightly thicker than ones at the bottom. [Anyone who's ever tried to cut too many sheets in a paper cutter - leaving the top sheets slightly trapezoidal as the blade moves the sheets - has a sense of what went wrong.]
The good news is that election officials in all of the affected counties seem to have managed to adapt and overcome the problem, either by trimming the ballots or by "remaking" them onto new ballots in order to allow them to be counted. It helped that the numbers of affected ballots were in the hundreds rather than the thousands. The counties are also prepared to conduct recounts if the problem leaves any results in doubt.
The bad news, of course, is that for their trouble the counties had the singular pleasure of being the butt of jokes and the target of incredulous criticism (I will confess to have Tweeted a *facepalm*) as a result of the problem.
This story illustrates how important it is to check and double-check the elements of the electoral process, but it's also a reminder that there are so many moving parts in in any given election that it's essentially impossible to check them all in advance. Consequently, election officials have to pick and choose parts of the process on which they'll focus.
In this case, the counties appear to have chosen not to scrutinize the work of their ballot printing vendor (or, if they did, managed not to choose a stack of misaligned ballots in their pre-election check). I would imagine those conversations between the counties and their vendor are going to be very interesting and more than a little uncomfortable. [I'd also be surprised if ballot printers across the country weren't quadruple-checking their cutters this week.]
The moral is that in the world of election administration, there is no small stuff. Election officials may not have time to check it all, but they certainly sweat it all - and if something is overlooked - whether by accident or by choice - they're going to hear about it.
Until then, you can bet that jurisdictions using optical scan ballots will add "Will the ballots fit in the scanner?" to their pre-election checklist.