Fundamental Flaws in the U.S. Electoral Process.
Yet the system of counting our ballots has fallen into disarray and is no longer functional. Mismanagement, long-term neglect, inexperience, and lack of funding have all played a role. In short, we all learned this past election that Florida is the rule and not the exception.
Some experts have been trying to tell us about this alarming state of affairs for years. For instance, the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology, reported over twelve years ago that prescored punch-card ballots were inherently unreliable and should no longer be used. Election officials have known for years that punch-card systems that produce chads are particularly prone to problems; that when chads are left hanging, the counting machines force them back into their holes and read what should be a vote as a nonvote. Nevertheless, more than 500 counties throughout the United States still use them today.
Providers of vote-counting machines say their machines have error rates of 0.01 percent to 0.1 percent. If true, counting machines alone could have made as many as 100,000 mistakes this year--an average of 2,000 votes per state. Adding to the problem, voting jurisdictions across the country use five varieties of lever-operated voting machines, six kinds of punch cards, ten sorts of optical scanning systems, and six types of touchscreen computers.
In short, the problem is that there is actually no such thing in the United States as a national election. We vote in 3,141 counties with 10,000 local jurisdictions. Federal standards, now in the process of being updated, have never been mandatory. Many states, like Florida, have written their own standards into state codes. In any event, all existing equipment, like the decades-old systems in Florida and many others elsewhere, is exempted from both state and federal codes.
How bad is it? Well ...
New York City voters, among others, use metal lever-action machines so old they're no longer being made. In 1998, the most recent year with records available, New York City reported trouble calls on 474 (nearly 8 percent) of the 6,221 metal lever-action machines used for voting in the city. It's common knowledge that if these ancient machines so much as go out of alignment, they no longer work properly. Similar machines in Louisiana are vulnerable to rigging with pliers, a screwdriver, a cigarette lighter, and a Q-tip.
In Texas, "vote whores" do favors for people in return for their absentee ballots. Sometimes these "canvassers" or "consultants" simply buy the ballots. They also steal them from mailboxes.
Alaska has more registered voters than voting-age people.
Indiana, which encourages voting with sign-ups by mail and at driver's license bureaus, now has registration lists with hundreds of thousands of ineligible listings, including deceased people, felons, and scores of multiple registrations.
Jerry Fowler, a former election commissioner in Louisiana, pleaded guilty after the 2000 elections to a kickback scheme with a voting machine dealer.
In Washington State, the providers of vote counting machines also program these machines. (In Arizona, they go as far as to help feed the ballots into the vote counting machines.)
While some people voted more than once, others were barred from voting at all. Thousands on the mostly African American east side of Cleveland went to vote this year, only to be turned away. Because of a 1996 state law cutting Cleveland precincts by a quarter, their polling places had been changed. The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections says it sent postcards to registered voters telling them of the switch. But of eighty-five African Americans asked about the postcards during two days of interviews in east Cleveland, only one said he received notification. (In any event, those who were turned away should have been given provisional ballots, to be certified later.)
At Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the campus newspaper polled 1,000 students, 174 said they voted two, three, even four times. One student told interviewers that he voted twice for Bush: once at a polling place on the Marquette campus and then by absentee ballot in Florida. "It's easy to vote more than once," the student said. "No one seems to care."
Some states have recently initiated mail-in ballot systems; others have employed them for various lengths of time. The 2000 elections was the first presidential election in which all Oregon votes were cast by mail. The ease of this system resulted in an 80 percent turnout in the state. But serious concerns are being raised regarding possible intimidation from family and friends when voters marked their ballots at home. A bigger worry is forged signatures. It is a felony to sign someone else's ballot and workers do try to match signatures on ballot envelopes with those on the voter rolls.
"I don't have much faith in that process," says Melody Rose, an assistant professor of political science at Portland State University. "I can forge my husband's signature perfectly." Rose gathered preliminary survey data this year on voters in Washington County, outside Portland. About 5 percent of 818 respondents said other people marked their ballots, and 2.4 percent said other people signed their ballot envelopes. Rose suspects the real number is higher because people are reluctant to admit being party to a crime. This could mean that more than 36,000 of Oregon's 1.5 million voters submitted illegal ballots.
According to Aristotle International, a D.C. firm that helps clean up registration rolls, one of every five names on the Indiana rolls is bogus. Indiana officials dispute this number, but most agree it is somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent. (Aristotle International representatives say six other states--Arizona, Idaho, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin--have rolls with bogus names of 20 percent or higher.)
But instead of investing the considerable funds to update antiquated voting systems, state and local officials have other priorities: crime, highways, recycling, and garbage collection. Thus, elections are often underfunded, badly managed, ill equipped, and poorly staffed. Election workers are temps, sometimes paid less than minimum wage--or nothing at all--and given very little or no training.
Even the new systems have serious flaws. Optical scanners require precisely printed ballots, and they don't count the ballots of voters who mark them with Xs, circles, or check marks instead of filling in ovals, boxes, or arrows. When the scanners fail, election workers in some states may create duplicate ballots or enhance the originals to clarify voter intentions. They are allegedly required to work in pairs (or more) with representatives from all political parties. Shawn Newman, an attorney with Citizens for Leaders with Ethics and Accountability Now (CLEAN) in Tacoma, Washington, considers this practice a sham. "Your ballot can be remarked or remade totally," he says, "without your knowledge or permission."
Other security concerns are raised by Internet voting. Democrats in Arizona say their experiment with it in the 2000 elections was successful. But Federal Election Commission Deputy Director William Kimberling calls it "a breeding ground for fraud." One thing we've all learned in the past decade is that computers are never trouble-free.
The provisions of the "motor-voter law," passed by Congress, were adopted by Indiana in 1995. Under the law, Indiana makes it possible for voters to register by mail or by filling out a form at any of 3,000 state offices, including all Divisions of Motor Vehicles. Since then, the number of new registrations in Indiana has increased by one million. But tens of thousands are the names of people who have registered more than once. Others are people who no longer live in Indiana, are in prison, or are dead. Indiana makes it very difficult to remove voters from the rolls. One person might register six variations of his or her name and vote six times.
In response to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's investigation and lawsuits, after weeks of initial unresponsiveness by the Justice Department, I'm delighted to report that on December 18, the federal government finally agreed to investigate possible violations of federal civil rights laws in Florida. Among the allegations to be investigated:
* Names of voters, disproportionately African American, wrongly removed from rolls.
* Registered African American voters banished from polls because their names couldn't be found on registration lists.
* Voting locations switched without timely--or any--notification.
* Ballot boxes not collected.
* Predominantly minority polls understaffed.
* Language assistance denied.
* Differences between sample ballots and actual ballots.
* Poorly designed ballots that didn't conform to state regulations.
* Antiquated, unreliable, error-prone punch-card systems
* Irregularities in absentee ballots.
Since George W. Bush's Supreme Court election victory, a partial inspection of presidential ballots in Miami-Dade County has found that at least one dead man voted, more than 100 ballots were illegal, and poll workers allowed out-of-state residents to vote. According to an examination by the Miami Herald of ballots cast at 138 of Miami-Dade's 617 precincts, 144 ineligible voters were allowed to vote. If these numbers remained consistent throughout the county, hundreds of illegal votes may have been cast. In addition, poll workers said they were overwhelmed by the huge voter turnout and got constant busy signals from the state's Elections Department hotline when trying to verify voter records.
When these after-the-fact counts are completed, at least a total of 60,000 of the six million ballots cast in Miami-Dade will get another look by a handful of news organizations, including the Miami Herald and the New York Times. A private accounting firm has been retained to sort every single ballot according to dimples, hanging chads, even pinpricks, and then calculate the totals, arriving at several different outcomes depending on who wants to count what as a vote. In addition, an examination by the Orlando Sentinel of 6,000 discarded ballots in Lake County has already found another 130 votes for Al Gore.
Depending on how the above totals pan out, we may eventually have a reasonably good idea who won the election in Florida, which will certainly have considerable historical value. But perhaps the most significant thing that came out of the 2000 election fiasco is that U.S. citizens now know--and can no longer avoid facing the fact--that the U.S. electoral process is rife with fundamental flaws which have rendered it marginally functional.
What could present a more fundamental problem in a democracy than this? Surely working to correct this situation must be moved to the top of our nation's priority list.
In an effort to correct the ballot disaster in Florida (and repair his image with voters), Florida Governor Jeb Bush has impaneled a twenty-one-member task force to study the state's procedures and recent voting irregularities and submit recommendations by March 1, 2001, to the state legislature. The first proposal on the table is the immediate removal of all the Sunshine State's punch-card ballot machines in favor of optical scanners.
If elected officials--state and federal--fail to take action to correct this alarming situation, we must prevail upon them until they do. To preserve our democracy, it is our collective responsibility to insist that the votes of all U.S. citizens be counted on election day.
Barbara Dority is president of Humanists of Washington, executive director of the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, and cochair of the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2001|
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