Summary (short) version
I am just an ordinary American voter who is unhappy with our existing election process and all the trouble it has caused us lately. I fear that recent events are undermining public confidence in our leaders as well as in the way in which we elect them. I am concerned about what happens to my vote after it has been cast. Will it be counted... or not?
I was particularly shocked to learn that in every election, many thousands of votes are disqualified because the ballots are punched or marked incorrectly. This needs to stop. Not only are we failing to count every vote that is cast in good faith, but also, as we have seen, in close elections this leads to endless manual recounts that are time-consuming, expensive, subjective and of questionable accuracy. Furthermore, I have a philosophical problem with the idea that voter's intentions can be judged by someone other than the voters themselves. This leads to my first and most important suggestion.
1. Modernize and/or replace voting systems, to achieve on-site ballot validation that will eliminate ambiguous and invalid ballots. Precinct readers are available for punch-card and optical scan ballots but most localities claim they cannot afford them. They idea is that before the voter drops their completed ballot into the ballot box, they will first feed their completed ballot into the reader. If the ballot is invalid, for example if there is a double-vote, it will be rejected and the election official will tear it up, give the voter a new ballot, and send the voter to the beginning of the line for the next available booth. If it is accepted, then the voter leaves with the confidence that their vote will be counted and not discarded. I believe that such a procedure would greatly boost public confidence in the election process. And by virtually eliminating disqualified ballots, recounts should be relatively easy and uncontroversial.
2. Establish minimal voting standards and regulations for all federal elections. This will require financial assistance from the federal government to help many counties upgrade their systems to meet the new standards. However it will help ensure that elections are consistently fair and efficient for all Americans. As we have seen, it only takes one state to screw up a presidential election. Plus, this will make it possible to implement certain reforms that can only be done on a national level; I will elaborate on this point shortly.
- Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan is also a proponent of this. "The Palm Beach fiasco will bolster his previous proposal for avoiding ballot problems: a machine that checks the ballot for errors as the voter casts it, allowing for an immediate revote if the ballot is filled out wrong. Such a machine is available in Cook County, but state election law is written in such a way that doesn't allow its use." ("Some Illinois legislators want to replace punch-card voting", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 11/21/2000)
- Punch-cards are not the only problem. "Optical scanners have their own special problems. They require precisely printed ballots, and they cannot count ballots when voters mark them with Xs, circles or check marks instead of filling in ovals, boxes or arrows. When the scanners fail to count those ballots, election workers in some states may create duplicate ballots or enhance the originals with a small graphite stamp to clarify voter intentions. They are meant to work in pairs with members from competing political parties. Election officials say this system works, but Shawn Newman, an attorney who represents Citizens for Leaders with Ethics and Accountability Now (CLEAN), based in Tacoma, Wash., considers the practice a sham. 'Your ballot can be re-marked, remade totally,' he says, 'without your knowledge or permission.'" ("A 'modern' democracy that can't count votes", Los Angeles Times, 12/11/2000) - This is why it is imperative that every voting must include some way for the ballot to validated in the presence of the vote, to ensure that they leave with the confidence that their ballot can be counted.
- In Florida counties that do not use precinct scanners, optical scan balloting is even less reliable than punch cards. ("Optical Scanners Topped Pregnant Chads as Most Flawed in Florida", The Los Angeles Times, 01/28/2001)
- "More than 8% of counties nationwide have upgraded to fully computerized touch-screen systems, similar to automated teller machines at banks. Apart from their expense--an estimated $100 million to outfit Los Angeles County, for instance--some election officials do not trust them. Some of these systems provide no paper records for recounts or disputed elections.
Even those that do, some experts say, might be programmed to lie." ("A 'modern' democracy that can't count votes", Los Angeles Times, 12/11/2000) I believe that a minimum requirement of electronic systems is that they produce a machine-recountable paper ballot.
- "New York City voters use metal lever-action machines so old they are no longer made, each with 27,000 parts. Similar machines in Louisiana are vulnerable to rigging with pliers, a screwdriver, a cigarette lighter and a Q-Tip." ("A 'modern' democracy that can't count votes", Los Angeles Times, 12/11/2000)
- "It is baffling why we cannot count all our ballots precisely and swiftly. But in Riverside County, they do just that. Mischelle Townsend, the county registrar of voters, has installed an electronic voting system that makes it next to impossible for people to vote for the wrong candidate and completely impossible for them to vote for two candidates for the same office. It is the first countywide touchscreen system in the country." ("Riverside's Investment in Making the Chad Obsolete", Los Angeles Times, 01/21/2001)
- "Second-chance" technology drastically reduced errors in Detroit. (Technology Slashes Detroit Voting Error, Washington Post, 04/05/2001)
3. Extend the voting period to two days. That is, make Monday an election day as well. First, this should make voting more convenient. I consider this a valuable benefit even though I do not consider inconvenience to be a valid excuse for not voting. Second, this should result in shorter lines. Third, this would give election officials more time to resolve problems, such as voters who were erroneously omitted from the rolls. For example, a judge here in St. Louis ordered the polls to stay open late because the board of elections was unable to accommodate the long lines of people with registration problems. Finally, if this is done at a national level, it will facilitate my next proposal.
- A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that "86 percent said they want standard rules for how and when recounts are done, issues that were at the heart of the vote-counting controversy in South Florida that ultimately was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court." ("Public Backs Uniform U.S. Voting Rules ", The Washington Post, 12/18/2000)
- The same Washington Post-ABC News poll also found that "most Americans want to strip authority for setting election rules from local and state officials and give the federal government the task of imposing order on election laws and practices that currently vary widely from state to state and county to county." ("Public Backs Uniform U.S. Voting Rules ", The Washington Post, 12/18/2000)
- Federal standards need to have some teeth. "Federal standards for voting equipment took effect in 1990, but they are not mandatory. A number of states, including Florida, have written some or all of the standards into their own codes. But all existing equipment was excepted, meaning that decades-old systems in Florida and elsewhere are exempt." ("A 'modern' democracy that can't count votes", Los Angeles Times, 12/11/2000)
- Another reason for strong federal standards and intervention, is that in spite of the Florida debacle, many states and localities are still reluctant or opposed to change.
- New York City, "which relies on 40-year-old voting machines that regularly break down and where other polling glitches are routine, is not about to see election reform or new voting technology any time soon." ("City Unlikely to Change Voting Gear by November", AP / New York Times, 02/09/2001)
- I have seen several other news articles reporting that Florida and some other states and localities are balking at the cost of election reforms.
- At the public meetings of the St. Louis County Board of Elections, I have not observed a much enthusiasm for election reform.
- Although I disagree with him on a number of issues, Doug Lewis of The Election Center does have a few good suggestions on the issue of federal support for election reform. For example:
- "Congress should give local and state election administrators the right to record and use the Social Security numbers of all voters. Appropriate safeguards can be devised for meeting privacy issues. Use of Social Security numbers is critical to protecting the rights of individuals -- to keep them from inadvertently being removed from voter rolls as felons, or confused with individuals of the same name or birth date. How many Mary Smiths or Jesus Martinezes are there? It was for exactly that reason that Congress amended the Social Security Act in 1994 to permit the use of Social Security numbers by state motor vehicle departments and by state and local courts. It makes no sense that election officials are still prohibited by Congress from using them." ("Fix the Vote, but Skip the Uniformity ", The Washington Post, 12/24/2000.)
- "We can fix the problems that caused Florida to happen fairly quickly and fairly inexpensively because what has to happen is that not just Florida but more than half of our states need to define what constitutes a vote." ("Counting Every Vote", New York Times, 01/21/2001) - I think we need to do a lot more than just that, but that's a start.
4. All polls across the nation must close at the same time. This is the only sure way I can think of to keep the media from declaring a "winner'' while voting is still in progress - an intolerable practice that cannot help but have a detrimental effect on voting and must be stopped. The problem is that the time zones are working against us: New Yorkers want to know who won before bedtime but the Hawaiians are not nearly done voting. I don't believe you can force the media to withhold election results for any amount of time, because of our (justifiably) liberal interpretation of ``freedom of the press''. And, it would be hard to keep all election officials from counting and/or reporting votes until a specified time. By closing polls simultaneously we would avoid those issues. The only issue is that even if you set the closing time at 10 PM Eastern time, that's only 5 PM Aleutian time, which would put Alaska and Hawaii at a disadvantage - but that would be overcome by adopting the three-day voting period proposal, to provide an ample opportunity for all to vote.
5. All absentee, foreign and mail-in votes must be received by the end of the final election day. If this is done nationally, and if disqualified votes are eliminated as suggested above, then it will no longer be possible for a single state to put the entire nation on hold while it waits for its votes to be delivered and counted and recounted. Nor will ballots be rejected due to fuzzy postmarks!
- A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that "Two in three support a single poll-closing time across the country, which would eliminate the possibility that news reports of election results from states in the East would affect voter turnout in the West. 'I don't have a chance to get to the voting booth until 6 or 6:30 at night, and I'm intending to vote for Bush, and they're telling me Gore already won,' said Rachel Glidden, 44, an operating room technician from La Luz, N.M. 'That's not fair. I haven't even had a chance to voice my say, and I already know what the result is.'" ("Public Backs Uniform U.S. Voting Rules", The Washington Post, 12/18/2000)
6. Each polling location should be equipped with computers connected to the central database for use by the precinct workers. This would make it possible for them to look up information as needed, e.g. if a voter goes to the wrong precinct then they can be quickly directed to the correct precinct. At the very least, each location needs to have telephones and the election board needs to have sufficient staff to field calls. However, computer access by election judges would greatly reduce the number of calls that the election board would need to field. The inability of election judges to communicate with election boards, is a commonly cited as one cause of confusion and irregularities at polling locations in many parts of the country. This is not an isolated occurrance.
7. Have additional workers at each polling location. At my location, all workers were very busy with their assigned tasks; no one was there specifically for the purpose of answering questions and helping out.
- "Setting up hotline communications between polling places and elections offices would make it easier and quicker to verify whether people are indeed eligible to vote, even if precinct records don't confirm that information. Many people who were eligible were denied the right to vote Nov. 7, while many who weren't eligible were wrongly allowed to vote." ("Suggestions are worthy" South Florida Sun-Sentinel editorial, 01/10/2001)
8. Have observers at each location to report possible irregularities. Particularly in precincts with a history of complaints. If any voters are being subjected to discrimination or other unacceptable treatment, these incidents need to be witnessed, documented, reported, and acted upon to help put an end to it.
- "The Board of Elections in New York City, for instance, hired 25,000 temporary workers this year. The job pays $130 for a day that stretches from before 6 a.m. until after 9 p.m. "Would you sit there for 15 hours for $130?" asks Danny DeFrancesco, the board's executive director. "Most of [the workers] can't read the manual," says Martin Connor, state Senate minority leader and one of New York's leading election lawyers. "You're not going to get bankers, businesspeople and teachers sitting there." ("A 'modern' democracy that can't count votes", Los Angeles Times, 12/11/2000) - And why not? The company I work for recruits volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, for example. How about getting corporations and other organizations to get the word out about elections? How about some creative thinking in this area for a change? I for one have never been asked to work an election and had absolutely no idea there was a shortage of election workers.
- The Voting Integrity Project has a great idea: "We advocate selecting high school seniors for training to fill these roles. In some states, that may require a waiver of the law requiring that election workers be registered voters. By using high school seniors for many of these posts, offering them community
service credits in lieu of stipends, you may also engage that young person as a voter for life."
- "California has started using students in civics classes - who aren't even voting age - to work polls, Secretary of State Bill Jones said." ("Election Officials Look at Voting", AP, 01/14/2001)
9. Vigorously prosecute vote fraud. Even when it does not effect the outcome of an election, it still effects the purity of the process, and our confidence in our democracy.
10. Voter education. Efforts to educate voters should be implemented or improved.
- "In Texas, "vote whores" do favors for people in return for their absentee ballots. Sometimes the canvassers or consultants, as they prefer to be called, simply buy the ballots. Failing all else, they steal them from mailboxes. In Oregon, a preliminary survey indicates that more than 36,000 of the state's 1.5 million voters may have mailed in ballots this year that were signed by someone else. Some students in Wisconsin say they voted as many as four times." ("A 'modern' democracy that can't count votes", Los Angeles Times, 12/11/2000)
- The Voting Integrity Project is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to fighting vote fraud. Their motto is, "Defending your freedom by protecting your vote."
11. Use Internet technology to provide better information to voters. For example, so they can verify that they are registered, and find out where to vote, etc. Also, post ballots on-line so voters can familiarize themselves with the ballot in advance.
- "Better education of voters could reduce problems of registering, filling out absentee ballots or casting a vote on Election Day. "Practice" voting booths would be offered at polling places, plus voter training videotapes. A voter's guide would be mailed out by elections officials for each election. Voting equipment would be displayed at schools and shopping centers before elections to familiarize voters with how to use it. Posting a Voter's Bill of Rights at each precinct could remind voters of their legal rights." ("Suggestions are worthy", South Florida Sun-Sentinel editorial, 01/10/2001)
- "The Washington Post findings suggest that the problems are not just hanging chads or outdated technology, however, but tens of thousands of voters who misunderstood how voting works, were confused by the instructions and did not receive sufficient help in the process." ("Fla. 'Overvotes' Hit Democrats The Hardest ", Washington Post, 01/27/2001)
Regarding Internet Voting
While I do advocate using technology to an extent to improve the election process, I am opposed to electronic and on-line voting at this time. I would like to continue using mark-sense or hole-punch ballots for the foreseeable future because they result in a physical vote that can be recounted with ease (provided it is a valid, machine-readable ballot) and archived. Given our recent problems, the first thing we need to do is restore voter confidence, the last thing we need to do is to implement bleeding-edge technology which could be confusing or intimidating to some voters, and which could be potentially be manipulated by hackers and viruses, however remote the possibility might seem to some.
Regarding the Electoral College
- "Other security concerns are raised by Internet voting. Despite what Arizona Democrats regard as a successful experiment in their primary this year, William Kimberling, the Federal Election Commission deputy director, calls it "a breeding ground for fraud." ("A 'modern' democracy that can't count votes", Los Angeles Times, 12/11/2000)
I am neutral on this issue. On one hand, it seems more fair to rely strictly on the popular vote. If that were the case, we would have had a clear winner and not had to wait 36 days. On the other hand, the many problems that have since come to light, would still be obscured. There are other legitimate arguments for keeping the Electoral College; but if we do, I think we should at least make all of the electoral votes binding, to eliminate additional uncertainty of "faithless" elector.
Set aside, for a moment - if you can - your feelings for George Bush and Al Gore, and consider what would have happened had the election been decided by the popular vote. The good thing is: the election would have been clearly decided in 1 day, not 36 days - and we would not have been exposed to all those issues. The bad thing is: the election would have been clearly decided in 1 day, not 36 days - and we would have remained oblivious to all those issues. Think about it - thousands of votes would still have not been counted, hundreds of absentee votes would have still been disqualified, felons and dead people would still have voted, and so on - the only difference is, the general public and myself would still be unaware of all the irregularities, inefficiencies and fraud - just like the previous elections! But the Electoral College has effectively exposed the gross deficiencies of our current systems, and hopefully now we can successfully demand change.
That's one reason for my ambivalence on this issue; in a somewhat perverse way, it has served a valuable purpose. The second reason is that I believe there are a number of more important reforms, such as voting system modernization, that will be much easier to pass and will provide much greater benefit. There are other possible reasons for keeping the Electoral College; but if we do, I think we should at least make all of the electoral votes binding, to eliminate additional uncertainty of "faithless" elector.
In summary, I am not opposed to abolishing the Electoral College - but only as long as it is not at the expense of the above reforms which I believe are more beneficial.
I do believe that no matter what reforms are enacted, and no matter what voting system is used, it will always be each voter's individual responsibility to register to vote, show up to vote, and make their voting intentions clear by following whatever voting procedures are in place. I believe that democracy requires this individual responsibility. But I also agree with James Madison who believed that "the reputation and success of representative government depended on the purity of popular elections." I believe our election process is now in need of purification.
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Last updated 07/29/2001