Can America Run a Fairer Election?

Why it's so hard to make sure that voting day goes as it should.

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In the early hours of Nov. 7, 2006, the midterm elections in Sarasota County, Fla., seemed to be going smoothly. But that didn't last. By late evening, it was clear something was wrong. The touted new touch-screen electronic voting machines seemed to be losing track of thousands of votes in the key congressional race to replace Republican Rep. Katherine Harris. Republican candidate Vern Buchanan eventually declared victory with a 369-vote lead—and now serves in Congress—but Democrat Christine Jennings refused to concede because the voting machines apparently failed to record approximately 18,000 votes.

This kind of confusion wasn't supposed to happen, not after the 2000 presidential election debacle—with its furor over butterfly ballots and hanging chads—sparked measures to reform the nation's voting process. Congress stepped in by passing the upbeat-sounding Help America Vote Act of 2002, requiring many states to improve how they conduct elections. So far, Congress has provided $3 billion for new voting machines, updating voter registration databases, and other reforms.

But while these measures have been implemented around the nation, the recent Florida experience highlights the continuing problems, which go beyond quirks in voting machines. Voting rights advocates are frustrated that not enough is being done to ensure that next year's voting will go off without major problems. "Progress has been inadequate," says Robert Pastor, executive director of the Commission on Federal Election Reform, a panel cochaired and created in 2005 by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker in response to the insufficiency of the 2002 reforms.

To be sure, the list of proposed reforms is daunting—and, in part, controversial. From paper audit trails and stiffer penalties against voter intimidation to efforts to revamp federal election oversight, a lot needs to be worked out before the 2008 presidential elections, say election experts, if voters are to have confidence in the validity of the outcome.

Touch-screens. The Help America Vote Act required states to move from the old lever-voting machines and punch cards to modern electronic voting machines. In the 2006 midterm elections, more than 80 percent of the nation's voters cast ballots using some type of electronic voting machine. Yet early experience, as Sarasota discovered, is showing that touch-screens can be problematic. Similar machine malfunctions have changed vote tallies in 30 states in recent elections, according to Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog. In Sarasota, the cause of the voting machines' malfunction is still unknown and under investigation. Election Systems & Software, the company that made those machines, denies charges that the machines caused the votes to be lost.

Thirty-six states now require or use paper trails to back up electronic voting machines or optical scan machines, which rely on paper ballots read by a computer. Both of these machines provide a paper trail so that elections can be audited for accuracy. Yet only 15 states require manual post-election audits as an authoritative check on the numbers.

A paper ballot that can be verified and audited by election officials, most reformers agree, is the best way to ensure that votes are counted fully and accurately. Democratic Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey has introduced legislation that would require that all machines used in federal elections produce paper trails and that those documents be audited. "Without a voter-verified paper ballot," he says, "the results of our elections will always be uncertain." Many local and state officials argue, however, that Holt's requirements would block needed flexibility at the state and local level. In any event, they add, Holt's requirements couldn't be met in time for the 2008 presidential primaries, the first of which is scheduled for January.

Not all voting problems can be blamed on machine error, of course. Blatant voter intimidation, say voting rights advocates, as well as the more subtle impact of new voting identification laws and registration rules disenfranchises thousands of Americans. Before the 2006 midterm elections, for instance, fliers distributed to voters with Latino surnames in Orange County, Calif., incorrectly said it is illegal for naturalized citizens to vote. And in Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico, voters received automated calls allegedly giving out intentionally incorrect information about voting requirements and locations. The Senate Judiciary Committee in September approved legislation to punish such deceptive practices, but it awaits further action by Congress. "For too many elections, misinformation and intimidation have kept thousands of Americans from voting," Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, the measure's sponsor, said in a statement.