In 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:
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
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
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
(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
video and provided this
description of his experience. The issue seemed to be
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
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,
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..
Courtesy: Wikipedia and WND.com
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
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
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
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
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.