Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The Case For Election Reform

The Case For Election Reform

Though we may have avoided the “major mishaps and controversies that tainted the 2000 election,” preliminary analysis of last week's vote underscores the fact that “substantial problems remain in the nation's electoral system.” Election experts pointed to machine glitches, long lines, confusion over provisional and absentee ballots and the lack of paper trails for lost votes as proof of major structural deficiencies in the way America votes. Computerized voter databases and upgraded technology, both mandated by the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), but so far under-funded and inconsistently enforced, should help resolve some of the problems by 2006. Other solutions, however, could come from a careful analysis of exactly what went wrong in this year's election.

EXTRA VOTES: Ever since election night, the evidence has mounted that computer glitches in electronic voting machines caused substantial errors. In a suburban Columbus precinct in Ohio, “An electronic voting machine added 3,893 votes to President Bush's tally…even though there are just 800 voters there.” MSNBC's Keith Olbermann reported that “in Cuyahoga County, that is greater Cleveland, the official records of 29 different voting precincts show more votes than registered voters to a total of 93,000 extra votes in that county alone.” Similar glitches were discovered in e-voting machines across the country. In Broward County, FL, “software subtracted votes rather than added them.” There were as many as 10,000 extra e-votes cast in Nebraska and 19,000 mysterious “extra ballots” were added on electronic machines elsewhere in Florida.

CODE AUDIT: Machine miscounts could have been caused by fraud or hacking, but the problems were most likely the result of voting software code errors. So far, none of the major e-voting vendors has agreed to release its code to the public “for fear of competitors stealing trade secrets.” But unofficial audits of some of the codes revealed security weaknesses and potentially dangerous glitches. The quixotic behavior of the machines in the 2004 election underscores the need for the federal government to audit the machines before they are used in elections.

PAPER TRAIL: In North Carolina's Carteret County, “more than 4,000 early votes were lost because the electronic voting system could not store the volume of votes it received.” The mishap was a perfect argument for a verifiable paper trail. With a voter-verified paper-trail system, says e-voting software expert Avi Rubin, "If the electronic votes were lost due to a computer malfunction, the paper votes would still be there and could be counted." As it stands, the votes cannot be recovered. In Nevada, the “only state with a large number of electronic-voting systems with voter-verified paper-trail capabilities, only a handful of problems were reported.”

PROVISIONAL BALLOTS: Had President Bush's margin of victory in Ohio been any slimmer, there would have been a fierce legal battle over the 155,337 provisional ballots cast in the state. Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell had ordered election officials to “only issue provisional ballots to voters in the right polling places,” prompting two federal lawsuits and possibly disenfranchising crucial votes. His edict would seem to violate HAVA, which mandated that provisional ballots be offered to any voter whose name is not on the rolls. But a federal clarification of the law's standard for counting the votes is clearly needed. “If Ohio's votes had been challenged by Democrats, legal experts said, the election overhaul law would have left plenty of other unanswered questions, particularly about provisional ballots.” The ballots created confusion in other states as well: in Colorado, Secretary of State Donetta Davidson inexplicably decided she would count provisional votes for president, but not for the state's tight U.S. Senate race.

LONG LINES: The most common problem of all in this year's election was long lines. The large voter turnout “caused hours-long waits throughout the country and prompted judges to order voting hours extended in some polling places long past scheduled closing times.” In Ohio, “lines were horrendously long,” even though turnout was below what Secretary of State Blackwell had predicted. And there “appeared to be disproportionately long lines in some low-income areas,” stemming from an inadequate number of voting machines. "There is a feeling here that the long-line problem was a problem of disparity that fell along socioeconomic lines," said Ohio election law professor Edward Foley. "There were isolated instances of long lines here in the seven- to nine-hour range.” For future elections, the nation should commit itself “to providing enough voting machines and election workers to make waiting times reasonable.”