Making votes count
Efforts to improve the accuracy of counting this year's presidential vote are falling short, and experts expect more technical and legal trouble this November.
By Michael Hill
Baltimore Sun Staff
Originally published October 10, 2004
FOUR YEARS AGO, the talk after the presidential election was about hanging chads. This November, it might be about bad code.
That would be computer code. With more and more Americans - including voters in Maryland - depending on computer programs to tally their votes, it would not be surprising if somewhere along the line the same type of glitch that occasionally keeps your home computer from booting up pops up in the polling process.
And if it does, it is highly unlikely to be a little-noticed local problem. Next month's vote is shaping up to be the most scrutinized election in the country's history.
In every one of the dozen or so battleground states, the election process will be subject to constant surveillance by both parties and a variety of other interest groups. Teams of lawyers are on standby, ready to jump in.
All that attention will be focused on an election that not only leans heavily on new - and mostly untested - technology but also features a huge number of new voters and a passel of new requirements for identification.
It might not be a recipe for disaster, but it is akin to a host deciding to make the most complicated dish found in a French cookbook for the first time for an important dinner party. Some problems are to be expected.
"When it's a close election, that magnifies all kinds of problems that are normally unnoticed," says Douglas W. Jones, a computer scientist who specializes in election technology at the University of Iowa. "Because of that, we could have, at the same time, one of the most controversial and one of the best-run elections in our history."
Only a few years ago, veteran political junkies were grousing that the wee-hours drama had been drained from election nights by exit polls and network projections. That is no longer the case.
Those who stayed up all night in 2000 still did not know who won. If the vote next month is anywhere near as close as the one in 2000, it would not be surprising to find the outcome up in the air for an extended period of time.
"Americans are anticipating a close election and are probably braced to wait a while for the final outcome," says Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, College Park. "But a stalemate like that of 2000 can create tremendous harm. Many people believe that the Supreme Court was out of line in the way it decided the 2000 election and that democracy was subverted. That can't happen many times before people lose faith in the political system."
One thing the 2000 election drove home is that the election is not a careful count of each vote cast. Forget the election night tally on your TV screen, . thousands of votes are not counted for one reason or another - spoiled ballots, absentee ballots that won't change the outcome, machine breakdowns. It turns out to be an expected and accepted part of the process.
"Think about how many participants we have in a nationwide election," Jones says. "Four years ago, 110 million people voted. There are over 3,000 counties in the United States, so you have over 3,000 chief election officers, probably on the order of 1 million election workers. ... Show me any human enterprise with that number of people involved where there aren't mistakes made and dishonest people involved."
'Big wake-up call'
The election, it turns out, is more the final opinion poll. Most polls have a sample of about 1,000 voters and a 3.5 percent margin of error. The Election Day poll has a sample of more than 100 million and an infinitesimal margin of error. In 2000, the result was within that tiny margin of error. Statistically, it was a tie.
"I think the 2000 election was a big wake-up call for many Americans," says Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park. "People never dreamed that as many ballots were being spoiled and thrown out as there were."
"It was a big shock to the whole democratic process," Walters says. "As a result, people are very suspicious."
A result of the 2000 debacle was the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002. Among other things, it aims to get rid of the punch-card ballots that produced those controversial chads in Florida. Just as the No Child Left Behind Act has school districts across the country scrambling to meet its requirements, HAVA has election officials in a similar mode.
Among its provisions is one requiring photo identification for first-time voters who registered by mail. Some states will require such IDs for all voters. The idea is to combat voter fraud, but some fear that the requirement will lead to confusion and be used to intimidate legally registered voters.
That has drawn the attention of Walters, who is active this year in what he calls a "nonpartisan turnout group" called the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation, a group that he says has more than 2,000 lawyers and law students signed up to stand by on Election Day.
"They will be poised at the end of a hot line, ready to do injunctions, things like that," he says, seeking to ensure that anti-fraud measures are not used to keep legitimate voters from casting ballots.
Those lawyers are only a fraction of the many ready to spring into action Nov. 2 and beyond. Florida in 2000 taught candidates that Election Day, instead of occupying its traditional role as the end of the partisan battle, can be only its beginning.
HAVA was supposed to help avoid that, not only by getting rid of punch cards but also by requiring states to come up with a statewide list of registered voters - which would help resolve problems at the polling places - and a way to allow people whose registration is in dispute to cast provisional ballots that would not be counted until the problem is resolved. The problem with HAVA is that it might be too much, too late.
"I don't think a lot of blame can be placed on the states," says Michael Alvarez, a political scientist at the California Institute of Technology. "It took a long time to get the Help America Vote Act passed, and it is only in the last year or year-and-a-half that funds have been made available to the states to implement it.
"It would have been nice if the act had passed in 2001 and been fully funded then," says Alvarez, part of a joint project between Cal Tech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to improve the voting process, announced in the wake of the 2000 problems. "In the long run, the act itself has a lot in it that is going to be very positive for the voter and the voting process."
Few states have managed to come up with their voter lists. Some states still have plenty of the punch-card machines - most notably Ohio, a major battleground. Plenty of others are bringing new processes online and are expecting the kind of glitches that always come the first time around as voters and poll workers learn the ropes.
Much of that new technology will involve the touch-screen systems that rely on computers to tabulate the votes. A great deal of the controversy about them can be traced to an analysis released this year by Johns Hopkins computer scientist Aviel Rubin, who found that the Diebold system for electronic voting - adopted by Maryland and many other states - had serious security flaws.
Beyond the security issues, Rubin's basic concern is that computerized systems leave no paper trail, no way of checking that the results they spew out represent the votes that were cast. This was also true of the lever voting machines that were the state of the art from the late 19th century to the middle of the past century. But if they were rigged - or broken - it was on a machine-by-machine basis.
Jones, of the University of Iowa, calls those problems - and their storied predecessors, such as ballot boxes that got stuffed - "retail fraud, something that allowed each individual to create only a very small number of fraudulent votes.
"Whereas with these touch-screen systems, the risk is what I've called wholesale fraud, a corrupt election official, a corrupt programmer or, far less likely, some hacker, deciding to make changes that have an effect countywide, statewide or even nationwide."
Rubin says the odds of that happening are small. "But it would be so catastrophic if it happened, and we need not put ourselves in that position."
Maryland fought off court challenges to the Diebold technology and is sticking with the new touch-screen system.
Alvarez says early reports from elections in Georgia indicate that the computerized system reduced spoiled ballots. But he agrees that start-up glitches are to be expected.
"I think [the success seen in Georgia] is where this is going in the long run, but in the short run a lot of issues are going to be raised, and they are going to be very difficult and complicated ones to resolve," he says.
Jones says that the country should not have emphasized technology as the solution to its voting problems.
"Putting all this effort into buying new voting machines was not money well spent if it could have been spent on improved election administration and poll-worker training," he says.
Jones also emphasizes that, there is only one way to make sure your vote is not counted: by not voting.
"The first thing you should do is vote," he says. "Then you can be suspicious of the systems. But first, vote."