TO: CVF-NEWS FROM: Kim Alexander, CVF President DATE: November 15, 2000 RE: Voting technology and our electoral process
Though the election is over, the vote counting continues in Florida as well as in California and other parts of the country. The dispute over ballot counting and the so-called "butterfly ballot" used in Palm Beach, Florida has launched a nationwide discussion about our electoral process and how new technologies can be used to improve the speed and accuracy of the vote casting and vote counting process.
Over the past week I have been giving a lot of thought, as well as several interviews about these questions and am taking a moment to share some opinions with CVF-NEWS subscribers. (Please note that the opinions expressed here are my own and are not intended to represent the views of the California Voter Foundation's board, staff or funders.)
This past week many people have been pondering whether Internet voting would help or hurt the voting process. It's important to realize that computerizing the voting process does not necessarily mean transmitting ballots over the Internet. When people say they want to "vote online", I think they are really saying a couple of things: a) they want a more modern interface to use when casting votes; and b) they want the convenience of voting from home.
Many voters already have the right to cast ballots from home using an absentee ballot. Allowing voters to vote by mail makes voting more convenient, but that convenience on the front end of the voting process creates a delay at the back end. Much of the delay in counting last week's votes in California and elsewhere is due to the fact that many people request absentee ballots but don't turn them in before the election and then show up at the polls on Election Day. Pollworkers allow such voters to cast what's called a "provisional" ballot, which is set aside and reconciled later with returned absentee ballots to ensure that the voter did not vote twice.
California voters also have the right to return their absentee ballot to their county election office on Election Day, but this convenience also results in delayed vote counts since the election officers have to make sure that voters who return absentee ballots to the county office on Election Day did not also cast a ballot at their polling place. In all, more than one million absentee and provisional ballots were cast in California on Election Day and hundreds of thousands remain to be counted (for a status report, see the Secretary of State's "Unprocessed Ballots" page at http://www.ss.ca.gov/elections/elections_upbr.htm). The absentee voting process has grown increasingly popular in California and elsewhere; about one in four California voters cast their ballots through the mail rather than at the polling place. And though voting by mail does delay the vote counting process, this convenience for voters can provide a way to increase voter turnout; in Oregon, where the first election conducted entirely by mail was just held, 79 percent of the state's registered voters returned their ballots.
On the issue of a more modern voting interface, I think we all have become better educated in the past week about the limitations of punch card voting. Like many people, I have been surprised and dismayed to learn that inaccurate counts are commonplace with punch card technology, as we've seen with the initial machine count and recount of the Florida ballots, which delivered two different results. I find it ironic that the first election to be held in the new millennium has turned on the question of whether we trust machines or people more to accurately count the ballots. Those arguing for machine counts seem to be saying that even if machines make errors in reading ballots, such errors are random and it's better to have a randomly inaccurate count than a subjective hand count. And given the increasingly partisan nature of the current controversy, it's not surprising that some would question the reliability of a hand recount.
There are five different types of voting systems used in this country. Here is the breakdown showing the prevalence of the different systems in use nationwide, according to the Los Angeles Times (it doesn't add up to 100 percent but I think it gives a good picture of what's in use right now):
1. Punch cards - 37 percent
2. Computer cards/optical scanning - 25 percent
3. Mechanical lever machines - 22 percent
4. Touchscreen or computer keyboard interface -- 7 percent
5. Paper ballots -- 3 percent
In California, touch screen systems are in use throughout Riverside County and were used for early voting in eight other counties. In addition, four California counties experimented with polling place Internet voting this election, which offers a similar user-friendly interface that helps voters make clear choices when they mark their ballots.
But when it comes to computerized voting systems, some worry that we won't be able to recount votes with confidence unless we have a paper trail. My own view is that technology is up to this challenge and that any computerized voting system certified by state election officials (as required by law) would have to demonstrate the capability of handling recounts as a pre-condition for approval and use. (These, in fact, were the very kinds of questions considered and addressed in the California Internet Voting Task Force Report, available online at http://www.ss.ca.gov/executive/ivote.)
But I can also understand why some people would be uneasy with the idea of having a completely paperless voting process. Some have suggested that when a voter uses a computerized voting process that, at the end of the process, there could be a paper print-out of their selections that they would review for accuracy and then place in a ballot box as a hard copy back-up in case a recount is needed. I think this is a good suggestion and one that should be explored. However, I do not think it is a good idea to give a voter a hard copy receipt of their ballot choices to take away from the polls; to do so, I fear, would erode the right to cast a secret ballot and could cause a proliferation of vote selling, vote swapping, and political coercion.
Another issue with changes in voting technology we have to consider is whether voters have an equal opportunity to have their votes counted. Punch card systems, as we've seen, can result in ballots not being thoroughly punched, and also permit voters to spoil their ballots by mistakenly casting more than one vote in a race. When overvoting occurs, the votes are thrown out. On the other hand, computerized voting and optical vote scanning systems do preclude voters from spoiling their ballots by overvoting. Computerized systems are designed to prevent a voter from casting more than one vote per contest, while optical scanning systems read a voter's ballot on the spot and, if overvoting occurs the spoiled ballot is discarded and the voter is given a new ballot. To use a mix of systems in a jurisdiction creates an unfair situation where voters using the less sophisticated technology stand a better chance of having their votes thrown out.
Another factor complicating this presidential election is the closeness of the race; neither Bush nor Gore received a majority vote, and we essentially have a tie. The electoral process is structured to favor the two-party system, but voter registration trends show that an increasing number of voters are choosing to be independent or join a third party rather than affiliate with either the Democrats or Republicans. In 1970, only one in twenty California voters registered as independents or with minor parties; today, it's one in five.
A run-off process between the two top vote-getters seems the most fair way to pick a winner and make sure that whoever leads can do so knowing they have a clear majority of voters' support. We have runoffs for nonpartisan offices like mayor, and groups like the Center for Voting and Democracy (http://www.fairvote.org) have long advocated an instant run-off process that would allow voters to cast their first and second choices on Election Day. In light of the closeness of this election it's time that such reforms are given serious consideration. I am not suggesting that the president should be elected by a majority of the popular vote nationwide, but rather that electoral college votes only be awarded to a candidate once a majority of voters in a state have voiced their support.
Another thing we need to come to terms with is that most election agencies do not have the staff or financial resources needed to institute new voting systems. If we are going to get serious about vote counting problems and voting interface issues it will take talent, money, patience, and public support for election officials before any widespread improvements can be made. Better public education and outreach about the election process and how to properly cast a ballot would also help reduce confusion and ensure that every person's vote truly does count. We need our state and federal lawmakers to dedicate the time, commitment and resources needed to make meaningful technological and educational improvements to our electoral process.
As confusing and frustrating as the situation is right now, I nonetheless take heart in the fact that people are speaking out about the voting process and raising important questions that need to be addressed.
As always, your thoughts and feedback are welcome.
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This page was first published on November 15, 2000 | Last updated on November 15, 2000
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