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Op-Ed: Recount experience shows strength of system

by DAN ENGLISH/Guest Opinion
| December 4, 2020 11:10 AM

Recounts and the process of election challenges are a hot topic of conversation lately. As one of a handful of folks who have actually witnessed and participated in both, I thought I would share my experience to hopefully shed some light on how they really work.

While I was the Kootenai County Clerk, I was part of a very high profile election challenge between Jim Brannon, who is our current County Clerk, and Mike Kennedy, the incumbent at the time, for a Coeur d’Alene City Council election. When all the dust had settled that night, Mr. Kennedy had won by just 5 votes. I knew we were in for a recount because in Idaho, if the outcome is within 1 tenth of 1 percent then the losing candidate can have a free recount of the entire election. But instead, Mr. Brannon and his attorney chose to bypass a free recount and go straight to a very lengthy and expensive court process to challenge the election. In the end, he was awarded two more votes but it did not change the outcome of the election. I was defeated myself in the next election cycle which brought my 15-year tenure as Clerk to an end and an end, I thought, to any more participation in election challenges or recounts.

In the next General Election cycle, a race for District 18 of the Idaho Legislature ended up with just a 9 vote margin, again in this case, a small enough number to trigger a free full recount for the losing candidate. In this case it was Janie Ward-Engelking who lost to Julie Ellsworth and a recount was set in action.

I was then contacted by Janie Ward-Engelking’s attorney and asked to participate on their behalf in the recount process. My first and probably second reaction was, “No way, I’ve been through that and wouldn’t want to add to any other Clerk’s pain or stress with my presence,” because I had found the process so painful myself. However, he was patient and explained that it was because of my very painful experience and my considerable expertise that he and the losing candidate were reaching out to me. They were going straight to the recount process and he said that if I came and observed on their behalf and was satisfied that all was as should be, then win or lose the recount, they would graciously accept the outcome and move on.

So I did agree to participate. I was well acquainted with the Ada County Clerk and most of the other election staff because we had all had numerous trainings and interactions together over the years. In a nutshell, they opened up the ballot cans that had been secured since after the election and a representative of the Secretary of State and Attorney General Offices were on hand to help direct the activities and answer any questions or issues on the spot. So issues like if there was a question about if a signature matched or how to treat UOCAVA or other absentee ballots were handled in real time and then the recount began which included running thousands of ballots back through the same optical scanning machines by the same election staff that counted them on election night. Those questions I mentioned that were handled by the Secretary of State and Attorney General in about a half an hour were the subject of months of discovery and court action in our Kootenai County election challenge case.

When all was said and done later that same day, Janie Ward-Engelking picked up one more vote but still lost by 8. I shared with her that I thought she should have every reason to accept that outcome and as promised, she gracefully conceded and was that. Although I should add that both she and Julie Ellsworth went on to have many other victories in the future.

And this whole experience confirmed what I already knew, that our election systems are safe, secure and incredibly accurate.

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Dan English is a former Kootenai County Clerk and Chief Election Official, having served for 15 years. He served in various state and federal election roles including the Idaho Secretary of State’s Election Task Force and was appointed to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s National Standards Board. He rose to a position of leadership, and was selected as national chair of Standards Board by the 110-member commission.