Voting Matters: March 2013 | STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
A group of experts has some advice on how to improve elections.
By Wendy Underhill
In the year after a presidential election, legislators get busy trying to address any voting snafus that occurred in their own state. The result: a flurry of bills introduced to improve the system, usually double the number of other sessions. This year is shaping up to be no different.
In Hawaii, where not enough ballots were on hand in some polling places, a bill has been introduced to fix that. In Florida, where early voting was an issue, a bill has been introduced to permit a wider variety of buildings to serve as early voting sites. And in states hit by Hurricane Sandy (and some that were not) 2013 may well be the year when bills focus on solid contingency planning for elections.
Added to those are a host of bills dealing with national “hot potato” issues that surfaced in the run-up to the presidential election: early voting, absentee voting and voter ID.
Responding quickly to election imperfections makes a great deal of sense, but there are other ways to craft good election policy that might take a little more time. One is to consider the advice of experts.
But which experts? Advocates of every political stripe are ready, willing and even anxious to offer their perspectives. Instead of presenting a “one side says this, and the other side says that” overview, we’ll examine the advice from the nonpartisan Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. It was formed in 2000 right after that exceedingly close presidential race, to investigate various kinds of voting technology. Quickly the group realized that technology is related to policy and policy is related to administration and administration is related to reality. So the group’s mission widened, with an eye toward gathering the evidence needed for good decision making.
In October 2012 the project released a report, “Voting: What Has Changed, What Hasn’t, & What Needs Improvement.” It opens by comparing the electoral landscape in 2000 to the one in 2012. The results are encouraging. In 2000, between 4 million and 6 million votes were lost, more than half due to voter registration problems, and others to faulty voting equipment and polling place problems. Changes made in the aftermath of Bush vs. Gore, however, have roughly cut the number of lost votes in half.
Good news, but there’s still room for improvement, the report suggests. It presents 17 recommendations on how the nation can move closer to running elections in which every legal vote counts. Charles Stewart III, MIT professor and the Voting Technology Project’s co-director, narrowed the recommendations to the following eight that fall within the bailiwick of state legislators.
1. Update Voting Technology
Stewart describes today’s voting equipment in graphic terms: “like a rat going through a snake.” He says that in most states, “the digested rat is about to come out the other end.” In plain terms, most states’ voting equipment is at the end of its useful life. This will require spending “money just to keep things going,” says Stewart, in the neighborhood of $7 to $10 per voter.
Traditionally, local election officials have bought equipment with local funds, but that changed with the passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002. It provided federal funding for replacing outdated machines, which most states did, some in one fell swoop. Virtually all of Mississippi’s 82 counties, for example, switched to new electronic equipment at the same time.
With election soothsayers seeing no more federal funding on the horizon, state lawmakers will have to consider whose job it is both to choose the next generation of equipment and to pay for it: local communities, states or some combination.
2. Conduct Post-Election Audits
With or without shiny new equipment, CalTech/MIT’s experts encourage legislatures to collect more data and conduct post-election audits. Audits count a small sample of ballots, extrapolating the final result. Although only a full recount can prove the winner “beyond the shadow of a doubt” (and that’s a hugely expensive and time-consuming process), an audit can satisfy a statistician.
More than half the states require post-election audits to verify equipment and procedures operated as expected, often using a sample taken from 1 percent of precincts or 1 percent of voting machines. Now, a new creature, the “risk-limiting audit,” is being tested in California. Its appeal is that it will likely be cheaper than traditional fixed-percentage audits because it reduces the number of ballots that have to be examined to verify the results statistically.
What Is the Voting Technology Project?
The CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project was formed in December 2000 to study voting technology in order to prevent the kinds of problems that plagued the 2000 U.S. presidential election.
The project consists of a wide variety of academics: political scientists, statisticians and computer scientists. With no particular political agenda driving it, the group has expanded its scope of study to much more than just the technology used for voting and has researched all aspects of the election process.
It’s goal: to collect evidence and data about various election options to help policymakers make informed decisions. Participants in the group come from CalTech, MIT, Harvard and the University of Utah.
If audits can be teamed up with automatic ways to capture data about the election (waiting times, numbers of provisional ballots used and counted, voter experiences, etc.), so much the better. More and better data are what scientists crave and policymakers rely on.
3. Upgrade Voter Registration
Accurate voter registration rolls can be the first defense against fraudulent voting. Throughout the 2000s, states have replaced local-only voter registration databases with statewide ones that have reduced the number of inaccurately registered voters, primarily by identifying individuals who have moved within the state.
The “next level” helps states maintain even more accurate lists by using data from outside the state, making it easier to trace voters who move but fail to cancel previous voter registrations, who lose their eligibility due to felony convictions, or who die. Stewart encourages states to check their voter registrations against various federal and state lists. The Electronic Registration Information Center, for example, provides data matching for the seven participating states, but all states are welcome to join.
One caveat: Data obtained through any matching effort cannot be assumed to be perfect and should not be used to automatically remove voters from the rolls. Any discrepancies detected merely give local election officials a chance to investigate further to clear up any questionable registrations.
4. Rethink Polling Places and Poll Workers
State law dictates how polling places are run, from how many voting machines to have available to how many election workers to have on hand. These standards, says Stewart, were often set in the days when virtually all voting occurred on Election Day. Now, with around a third of votes cast before Election Day, through absentee ballots or in-person early voting, these old standards may no longer make sense.
Replacing paper poll books with electronic ones—a database of registered voters—can speed up voter check-in times. To move in that direction, state laws may need to be amended. And for a successful launch, electronic prototypes need to be tested, re-tested and tested again to ensure they are intuitive and easy to use, and therefore, actually faster for poll workers to use.
Voters, too, can do their “duty” more effectively if voter information—where to vote, what to bring and when the lines are likely to be the shortest—gets distributed on a timely basis.
5. Work With Universities
“It is the mission of land grant colleges to apply scientific advances in science and engineering to the problems of a state,” says Stewart. Most people think of that function in terms of agriculture, but Stewart asks, “Why not voting also?” Since managing elections is becoming so complicated, smaller jurisdictions could consult with logistics and management experts in state universities. And, who better to research policies, procedures and equipment options than professional researchers?
The Center for Election Systems at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University functions in much this way. University partnerships won’t be a quick fix to any election-related problems, however. Partnerships can take time to set up, and they can take even more time to produce results. Keeping the focus on “real world” applications would be a must.
6. Reconsider Internet Voting
Although everyone seems to believe that someday we’ll vote securely via the Internet, the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project says that “someday” is still years away. It’s just too tricky to provide excellent security for Internet voting and ensure the secrecy of ballots.
Several states are piloting programs to permit voters to transmit completed ballots from overseas by scanning them and attaching them to emails. Even though this is different than voting online, it can still be problematic from a security perspective. So much so, in fact, that the National Institute of Standards and Technology advises against it for now. And yet, for some voters—those who can’t get to a mailbox because of a hurricane, a war zone or any other reason—this may be a better-than-nothing choice. In these cases, voters must sign that they understand that the secrecy of their vote cannot be guaranteed.
7. Resist No-Excuse Absentee and All-Mail Voting
No-excuse absentee voting grew in popularity in the 2000s, and is now available in 27 states and the District of Columbia. With this option, any registered voter can request a ballot in advance, fill it out at leisure, and return it by mail or in person. And two states—Oregon and Washington—conduct all elections almost entirely my mail. Both ways are convenient for voters and often less expensive for election administrators.
The CalTech/MIT report advises against these practices, however, except for people with disabilities and overseas voters. It recommends expanding opportunities for in-person early voting instead. The concerns center on the inconsistent identification requirements among the different ways to vote; the surprising numbers of ballots received after the cut-off date and therefore rejected; and the greater possibilities of coercion or malfeasance since ballots are out of the hands of officials.
It’s worth noting that citizens in states that have adopted no-excuse absentee voting and all-mail voting are very happy with these choices. In fact, more and more states are considering these convenient voting options.
8. Limit Provisional Balloting
Across the nation, everyone who shows up on Election Day can vote using a provisional ballot. If there is any doubt about their eligibility or registration, it is sorted out later. This can be time-consuming and expensive, and the criteria for counting these ballots vary greatly from state to state, or even from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Anything states can do to limit the use of provisional ballots will reduce headaches, expenses and lost votes, advises the Voting Technology Project.
2016 and Everything Before
The next presidential election may seem far away. But with a plethora of suggestions on how to improve voting, there’s plenty to study, debate and consider before 2016—not to mention all the state and local elections in the meantime. Working to make our nation’s elections as fair, honest, reliable and convenient as possible is a worthy pursuit, because, after all, voting matters.
Wendy Underhill tracks election issues for NCSL.