WE'RE STILL NOT SURE which we'll see first - the final score of the Super Bowl or certified returns from the Marion Barry-Arthur Fletcher election. The elections board - unswayed by any exhortations to do the simple thing and hand-count the Nov. 7 ballots in each precint - is going ahead with plans to haul the boxes to a central couting house for its tally. The board also has figured a new way to maintain its traditionally high standard of confusion this time by experimenting in Ward 5 with a punch-card voting system. To ensure a good number of unnecessary Election Day problems, officials so far have been careful not to tell anyone much of anything about how to work this system.
Clearly some expert help is needed in a hurry. Neither the board nor Mayor Washington should feel the least bit shy about calling top national and local talent in on the case. Already, we're pleased to learn, one respected local professional who is known for competence and independence - D.C. Auditor Matthew S. Watson - says he's stepping in to help. Mr. Watson, who came to his job from the General Accounting Office, says he'll provie technical assistance, and judging from the procedural recommendations he's suggested so far, the board should listen carefully.
Mr. Watson has ideas to improve not only the tabulation of votes but ballot-box security. For example, he notes that the board needs an internal balancing system. First, you list the total number of ballots cast, including blanks and invalid ballots - something the board hasn't been doing. Then, if you know the total number of ballots involved in each precint, you can pinpoint the precints in which errors pop up. reported vote totals could be matched against the number of ballots distributed in each precint. To improve security, Mr. Watson would require everyone handling a ballot box to sign either a receipt or the box itself; in the horrible past, when boxes were being transported - and temporarily lost - there weren't any good running records of who had what.
Why, after so many elections, the board hasn't thought of such things is beyond us. But Mr. Watson's advice is valuable, and we urge him to keep badgering the board. Similarly, others who share in the belief that a prompt, accurate ballot count is a most serious, top-priority mission should monitor the process closely. Candidates and political parties should detail their best experts as observers, too - for neither the local government nor the elective process can survive much more of the damage to public confidence that has been caused by the ballot-count mismanagement of the past.