posted by Howard Fosdick on Thu 8th Nov 2012 20:12 UTC
IconIn the United States, state and local authorities are in charge of voting and the country uses more than a half dozen different voting technologies. As a result, the country can't guarantee that it accurately counts national votes in a timely fashion. This article discusses the problem and potential solutions to the U.S. voting dilemma.

This map shows some of the major voting technologies in use today:

Voting Map

This interactive map lets you drill down to see all the state and county level technologies in use.

Because of the different technologies and the dispersed responsibility model, the country can't accurately count votes in a timely fashion. The close election of 2000 highlighted the issue. The country voted for Democratic candidate Al Gore over Republican George W. Bush by a margin of 50,999,897 to 50,456,002 -- so far as could be determined, with almost two million votes disqualified. But the popular vote doesn't decide the victor in the U.S.. The electoral vote does. (For those unfamiliar with this system, individuals vote for electors in their state pledged to vote for the candidate of their choice in the Electoral College. The U.S. presidential election thus actually consists of 51 separate elections for electors (50 states plus the District of Columbia). All but two states hold winner-take-all contests -- they award 100% of their electors to the candidate in their state who gets the most popular votes.)

In the 2000 election, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided the election in candidate Bush's favor a full two months after polls closed by stopping vote recounts in the critical state of Florida. The court essentially declared candidate Bush the winner in Florida, which gave him all 25 of that state's electors and a 271 to 266 victory in the Electoral College. Most studies since the election have concluded that candidate Bush actually lost both the popular and electoral votes.

This fiasco prompted Congress to pass the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002. HAVA's goal was to improve voting accuracy through modernization. But it failed, largely because it left implementation choices up to the states. The result is that voting technology remains non-standardized today, as the above map shows. Long lines and waiting times are still a problem. And -- unforgivably -- accuracy is still in question.

Here's an example from last Tuesday's election. A voter pressed a touch screen for candidate Obama and the machine changed his vote to candidate Romney. The voter was a software engineer who captured the problem on video and provided this description of his experience. The issue seemed to be miscalibration of some machines. Separately, the Republican National Committee sent a letter to election officials in six states alledging that voting machines incorrectly counted Romney votes for Obama. Meanwhile all sorts of lawsuits are ongoing.

Some have urged the U.S. to go to all-electronic voting. Or even to Internet voting. (Be modern, like many European countries!) The sticking point is that computerized systems need to be verifiable, both by the voter and election officials. Most computer scientists argue that only "evidence-based systems" can prevent stolen elections in the United States. As Bruce Schneier explains, "Computer security experts are unanimous on what to do... DRE [Direct Record Electronic] machines must have a voter-verifiable paper audit trail and... Software used on DRE machines must be open to public scrutiny."

I agree. U.S. history is filthy with attempts to steal elections. And the country remains a politically contentious place. Right now, for example, up to 25% of the public believes their current president is legally not an American citizen, as required by law to hold the office. They're called "birthers." You can see why evidence-based voting systems are needed in the U.S..

Birther Billboard
Courtesy: Wikipedia and

How about an example where some attempt to distort democracy and the voting process? Look no further than the ongoing nationwide effort to limit voting through restrictive voter ID laws. Evidence indicates very, very few incidents of people committing vote fraud in this manner. Yet politicians are using this as the excuse to limit participation among voter demographics they believe do not favor them. Trusting such politicians with any voting mechanism that doesn't produce a physical audit trail is folly.

There's another approach to solving U.S. voting problems. It relies not on technology but on altering the voting procedure. Eliminate the electoral system and implement direct voting for president. This has two advantages. First, no candidate could win the office while losing the popular vote (as has happened 4 times in 57 presidential elections). Second, the nearly 120 million votes cast nationwide reduces the chance of a winner whose margin of victory lies within the range of vote count inaccuracy. Unfortunately, eliminating the Electoral College requires a constitutional amendment and is highly unlikely.

Will the U.S. ever get its voting act together? Don't hold your breath. Dispersed responsibility for the voting process among state and local governments prevents standardization. (The U.S. doesn't even have a national ID.) And the laws passed in response to the debacle of 2000 didn't fix the problem, although some progress has been made. Meanwhile there's little possibility of eliminating the electoral system and the cynical effort to restrict voting continues.

Is this how a modern democracy should vote?

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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports databases and operating systems. Read his other articles here.

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