Safeguarding your vote.
HAVA also brought with it the promise of money--$3.9 billion--to modernize and improve federal elections. Since 2002, debate over how to fulfill the requirements of the law has focused overwhelmingly on new technology, both new voting machines and computerized statewide registration systems. Yet, as election officials well understand, new, sophisticated technology alone will not solve the ills that surfaced in the 2000 presidential election. Sound administrative practices are equally necessary to ensure that elections are run fairly and accurately.
For example, one county moved quickly following the 2000 election, purchasing all new electronic voting machines only to discover during its 2002 gubernatorial primary that the process for administering those new machines was problematic. Ballots were incorrectly loaded and poll workers had not been trained adequately on how to operate the new machines. Consequently, many polls opened late and some never opened. This example clearly demonstrates that technological solutions provide no protection against flawed management of that technology.
A new League of Women Voters report, Helping America Vote: Safeguarding the Vote, released in July 2004, outlines a set of recommended operational and management practices for state and local election officials. The authors compiled model practices--"common-sense steps"--that already have proven effective in some states. This user-friendly guide spells out the tools necessary to enhance voting system security, protect eligible voters and ensure that valid votes are counted. Time is of the essence in order to safeguard our votes in the 2004 elections. As the League report urges, officials must begin by providing a more secure foundation for two key components of election administration: voting systems and voter registration systems.
From the now infamous punch card systems to brand new electronic voting equipment, voting machines no longer have the automatic confidence of America's voters. When looking for solutions, it is important to recognize that voting machines function within a larger legal and administrative structure. Many of the risks inherent in the use of any system can be substantially reduced by improving management practices such as personnel training and by instituting rigorous administrative procedures.
For example, the report recommends "tracking and documentation of all procedures, from the testing of machines to the handling of ballots," to ensure that such practices are actually carried out and that audits are possible if problems occur. In New Mexico, after the polls close, the presiding election judge mails documentation of the number of voters and the vote totals to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State then investigates any discrepancies, and poll workers are required to explain any anomalies.
The computer system that administers Georgia's election system incorporates information used to produce a comprehensive set of audit data. For transactions occurring on the same system, the system records the nature and the time of the transaction as well as the person who conducted the transaction in an audit log. The audit log allows an investigator to reconstruct the sequence of events surrounding any incident or system failure.
Such best practices and procedures can be replicated easily and will go a long way to better protect voting systems and shore up public confidence in the voting process.
Many people don't realize that most voters going to the polls this fall will cast their votes on the same type of voting machine they used in the 2000 elections (see graph above). To help ensure that all voting systems are ready this year, the League has created a Checklist for Voting Systems. This easy-to-read supplement in Safeguarding is a handy starting place for election officials and voters; it includes a simple list that applies to all voting machines and a specific checklist for each type of machine.
No matter the voting machine being used--punch card or optical scan, lever or touchscreen--there are universal steps to be followed in preparing for Election Day. All voting machines, for instance, should meet federal qualifications and state certification standards, and these should not be bypassed on Election Day. Ballot design for each type of machine is vitally important in making sure that voters properly cast their votes. And aggressive education efforts to show voters how to use their voting machines are essential. This Checklist also spells out basic measures for each type of machine so officials can tailor protections to their precinct or county.
Voting Registration Systems
When Congress first began looking into the election system following the 2000 presidential election, it soon became clear that poorly administered voter registration systems posed a bigger problem affecting more voters than antiquated voting machines. Eligible voters were disenfranchised because their registration applications were not being processed and because of other systemic problems.
HAVA mandates that states establish a statewide computerized voter registration system in order to address these types of problems. At the time the League's Safeguarding was published, 44 states had requested waivers from this new HAVA requirement. That means a vast majority of states are not required to implement this provision until 2006.
The design of voter registration systems is vital to establishing a well-administered election process. Safeguarding sounds a note of warning: "As states begin the development of these systems they must realize both the power of technology and the impact of management procedures." These centralized and computerized systems could make the problem of wrongful purging more acute, if poor management practices are followed, or provide for more accurate registration lists. For good or ill, these systems will have a serious impact.
States can look to the League's recommendations for guidance as they make plans to put these systems in place. It is important for states to "establish electronic transmission of voter information to the election authority from motor vehicle and other agencies offering voter registration," Safeguarding notes. Michigan is already doing this in its Qualified Voter File--a unified database shared by the state election agency and the motor vehicle agency. Electronic transmission allows the processing of new registrations and updates in real-time and significantly reduces the likelihood of losing applications.
Jurisdictions that transmit voter information from one agency to another electronically are much less likely to experience registrations falling through the cracks and will probably have far fewer provisional ballots. A majority of Los Angeles County's provisional ballots are cast by voters who registered at a motor vehicle agency but whose registrations either got lost in the system or were not processed in time.
The League also calls on election officials to "ensure the registration process enfranchises all eligible citizens." The voter registration process can help assure good administration of the election process, or it can serve as a barrier to voter participation. In creating a statewide database, states must establish where the responsibility lies for adding, deleting and updating voter records, and specify the rules for determining eligibility and ineligibility. States should ensure that information is used to complete accurate registrations, rather than to present obstacles to the voter registration process.
For example, if a voter registration applicant fails to provide a driver's license number or inadvertently transposes numbers, the database system should help correct that application so it can be processed and accepted. In California, the state searches the motor vehicle database to pull the driver's license number, which then is added to the voter record. The state also compares voter records to health records. In the end, these practices not only help voters, they also ensure more accurate records.
An additional and important League recommendation calls on state election officials to "conduct accurate voter registration list maintenance." The use of database technology in election administration will require different procedures and more stringent safeguards than in other areas of government. Officials will need to be mindful, the League cautions, that nothing in HAVA allows them to bypass protections intended to prevent voters from being disenfranchised for administrative errors, specifically the protections established in the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), also known as the "motor voter" law.
NVRA requires states to perform list-cleaning procedures to keep voter registration lists current and accurate, including obtaining data from other sources such as the National Change of Address program, death records and felony records. While this data can provide useful information, it must always be verified. One jurisdiction in 2000 matched the voter list against a tax assessor's list and required voters whose addresses did not match the assessor's lists to vote by provisional ballot at the central election office. The assessor's list was ten years old and some addresses which were listed as vacant were now residences. Voters should not be penalized for inaccurate or out-of-date record keeping.
Election day is fast approaching, but our nation's election officials still have time to take the necessary steps to protect our votes this November. Sound management practices will go a long way to strengthen the election process and assure our fundamental right to vote. Safeguarding is an important contribution to the ongoing national debate over the health and security of our election system.
Expected Voting Equipment Usage for 2004 (Percentage of Registered Voters) Punch Card 14% Lever 14% Paper Ballot 1% Optical Scan 33% Electronic 31% Mixed 7% SOURCE: ELECTION DATA SERVICES INC., MAY 2004 Note: Table made from pie chart.
Kelly L. Ceballos is LWVUS senior director of Communications.
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|Author:||Ceballos, Kelly L.|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2004|
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