Voting Technology

Commentary for KQED's "California Report",
by Kim Alexander, President, California Voter Foundation

Friday, November 17, 2000

ike many people, I am surprised and dismayed to learn that inaccurate vote counts are possible with punch card technology, as we've seen with the Florida ballot recount. It turns out this is not a new problem; back in 1988 a federal standards agency said that punch card ballots should be eliminated because they are prone to inaccuracies, primarily due to those pesky, dangling paper dots known as "chad".

It's ironic that the first Presidential election held in the new millennium has turned on the question of whether we have more faith in machines or people to accurately count votes. Frankly, I've never even thought to check my ballot for a dangling chad before placing it in the ballot box, and was heartened to learn that in Sacramento County, where I vote, election workers brush off stray bits of paper before placing ballots into the vote counting machine.

There are three kinds of voting machines used in California. Punch cards are used about half the counties, while the other half uses marked ballots read by optical scanners. Riverside used a touch screen system for the first time this election after investing 13 million dollars to purchase and deploy the machines countywide. In other parts of the state, early voters experimented with touch screen and polling place Internet voting machines.

Whatever we do to improve voting technology, we must consider whether all voters have an equal opportunity to have their votes counted. Voters who use punch cards can spoil their ballots by mistakenly casting more than one vote in a race, while computerized and optical scanning systems are designed to prevent overvoting altogether. To use a mix of systems creates an unfair situation where voters using the less sophisticated technology stand a better chance of having their votes thrown out.

The confusion in Florida comes as no surprise to those election officials who have warned for years that punch card systems can produce inaccurate results. We're using 1960's technology because new systems are expensive and lawmakers have not made it a priority to replace them. If we are going to get serious about improving voting technology it will up to our federal, state and local lawmakers to dedicate the attention and resources needed to insure that every vote truly does count.

Your feedback is welcome! To contact Kim Alexander, write to, or call (916) 325-2120.

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This page was first published on November 21, 2000 | Last updated November 21, 2000
copyright 1994 - 2000, California Voter Foundation. All rights reserved.