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Building a Better Election

The Help America Vote Act was supposed to prevent what happened in the 2000 election from happening again. Guess what? It probably won’t.

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Remember waking up the morning after the 2000 presidential race, flipping on the news, and discovering that we still didn’t have a new president? As Americans prepare to return to the booths for the first presidential election since the 2000 rumble in Florida gave us the phrase “pregnant chad,” and neither candidate seems to be able to maintain a decisive lead, the possibility of a replay is on everybody’s mind.

The 2000 election cast a spotlight on voting practices and the way elections were conducted in this country. Florida, of course, fell under the most scrutiny, but it seemed as though every aspect of the process was called into question — from the hardware used to cast the ballots to the voting sites themselves — as officials scrambled to make sure that every vote that could possibly be counted was taken into consideration.

Whether you were happy with the ultimate outcome or not, everyone agreed on one thing: something needed to be done about the voting systems in this country to ensure a fiasco like the 2000 election would never happen again. To that end, President Bush signed the Help America Vote Act, requiring all 50 states to upgrade their election procedures. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) allocates $3.9 billion in direct aid to states to help with changes, including improved voting machines, registration processes, and poll worker training.

The problem is that if there is a replay of the 2000 elections and the 2004 elections are decided by a handful of votes in a few key states, it’s very likely that we’re going to see the same controversial recounts, squabbling, accusations of fraud, and partisan bitterness that we saw four years ago, despite the Help America Vote Act.

What it all comes down to is that there may really be no such thing as a fraud-proof, tamper-proof, fool-proof election.

Geralyn Miller, an assistant professor at IPFW’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, has just published a book called Changing the Way America Votes – Election Reform, Incrementalism, and Cutting Deals, in which she uses HAVA as a case study to investigate attempts at election reform. She looked at the testimony given to Congress that helped them determine what to do about the problems in the 2000 election. “What I found was that there were all these special interest groups demanding a set of conditions for themselves,” she says. “So what got passed was sort of a smorgasbord of issue resolutions.”

Furthermore, Miller argues that some of the issues were based on what she calls very limited amounts of actual, scientific information. “To name one example, when the NAACP made their demands, they were doing so based on allegations of disenfranchisement,” she says. “The truth is, there is very little scientific evidence to support the given numbers of disenfranchised citizens.”

In other words, while we know that in every election there are a number of disenfranchised citizens, Miller says that we don’t know exactly how many there are, we don’t know exactly how they were disenfranchised (machinery, provisional voting, precinct distribution), and since HAVA was based on dozens of cases of similar testimony, we don’t know how effective HAVA will be in “enfranchising” those voters this time around. “We just don’t have enough scientific evidence of what actually goes on in there (the voting booth),” says Miller.

Actually, there are a number of misconceptions about HAVA, and the idea that somehow it will make a near 50-50 split in the next election less contentious is just one of them. Voting practices and procedures have always been the jurisdiction of the individual states, and HAVA is pretty general about how the states go about implementing their upgrades. Few of the reforms are mandatory in the strictest definition of the word.

For example, HAVA says that every state has to have some sort of standard to deal with provisional voting, something which most states had anyway. “The controversy is that in some states, there’s a difference in which provisional ballots they count,” says Sean Greene, Research Director at electionline.org, a non-partisan website produced by the Election Reform Information Project that offers news and analysis on election reform. “In some states, if you vote in the wrong precinct, they won’t count your ballot, even if you’re registered to vote. In other states, they’ll throw out the local race, but they’ll count the federal race for senate or for president.”

Another example is the issue of voter ID. The states differ on what they ask for or will accept. As a minimum standard, states have to ask first-time voters who register by mail to present identification. But after that… “17 states ask all voters to show ID,” says Greene. “In two or three states, it’s a photo ID only, so there’s some debate over what people should be allowed to show as ID. The HAVA language leaves it pretty vague. Some people see it as another barrier for people to vote; others see it as just another line of security against voter fraud.”

There are lawsuits in various states to change the way states handle some of these issues, especially provisional voting, but these laws probably won’t be changed in time for the 2004 presidential election.

But the biggest topic in the 2000 election was hardware — punch cards, butterfly ballots, and obsolete voting machines. Yet not every state has to make changes, even with old voting machines. “There is a misconception that punch cards and lever machines have to be replaced,” says Greene. “Technically, that isn’t true. That’s only in the case of states that applied for specific HAVA funds. If you applied for funds to replace voting machines, you have to replace those machines. Most states did. But there was also a waiver for that until January 1st 2006.”

In fact, the software and hardware of electronic voting machines have come under serious scrutiny recently. It probably says something about our current political climate that when Walden O’Dell of Ohio voting-machine manufacturer Diebold said in a Republican fund-raising letter that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president,” the image of him crouched behind his machines clipping the “Democrat” wire didn’t seem that far fetched to some people. An unfortunate choice of words for O’Dell in this case, but according to computer experts, many of the ATM-type voting machines are just as susceptible to fraud and tampering as their outdated brethren — programmed to skip every third vote for a particular candidate, or switching every third vote to another candidate, or simply not counting a vote, or whatever other electronic age equivalent of hooking a rubber band to the back of a lever voting machine.

There’s also an issue with certifying these machines. A recent AP story reported that the three companies that certify the nation’s voting machines (CIBER and Wyle Laboratories in Alabama, and SysTest Labs in Denver, all chosen by the National Association of State Election Directors under the authority of the Federal Election Commission), operate in almost total secrecy and refuse to discuss their findings.

Paranoid? Crazy? Too Michael Moore to be believed? Maybe, but in this case, it’s not some lunatic fringe, propagating these ideas. Nor is it a segment of the population unclear about the limits and capabilities of modern technology. It’s the people who build and study computers. “There are surveys that show that people have a lot of faith in these machines,” says Greene. “I think that number is a lot less among computer scientists.”

In testimony before a House subcommittee last June, Michael Shamos, a computer scientist with Carnegie Mellon who has done extensive research on electronic voting said that he finds it “grotesque” that “an organization charged with such heavy responsibility feels no obligation to explain to anyone what it is doing.”

Furthermore, the lengthy approval time for new voting hardware and software — as much as a year — have lead to allegations that some states will use voting machines that haven’t been cleared by the official testing firms.

These concerns (and problems with touch-screen machines in several states in the past two years) have fuelled a small but growing movement calling for “paper trails” for elections, some sort of paper record of a person’s vote. Greene says that when the “paper trail” movement first started out, these people were thought of as conspiracy theorists. “Now, a lot of legislation being passed for a voter-verified paper trail,” he says. “It’s all about trust. Do people trust their voting machines? At least it (a paper trail) assuages people’s fears.”

In Allen County, we still vote with pebbles painted blue and red, and it suits us just fine.

But in all seriousness, Allen County uses what might be one of the most controversy-free electronic voting machines available, and it’s made in Indianapolis. “We’ve used the MicroVote 464 since 1990,” says Jeanne Nicolet of the Allen County Clerk’s Office. “They’re very user-friendly, and there’s a paper back-up, but we’ve never had to use it, not even in a recount.” (Of course not. If Indiana ever came close to giving a Democratic presidential candidate our 11 electoral votes, the Earth would probably split open and swallow the state).

“There’s really not much you can do with the MicroVote 464,” adds Nicolet. “It’s very difficult to mess them up.”

Allen County is getting a piece of the HAVA pie — about $1.2 million — and we’ll use it to install a brand new MicroVerb Infinity (the next generation 464) in every precinct. “We weren’t in the first tier, for people who were using level machines and punch cards,” Nicolet says. She explains that we’ll be able to add the machines incrementally.

But a fool-proof voting machine might just be impossible, according to Professor Miller, due to the nature of the “interface” between voters and equipment. Miller compares it to the self-checkout lane at your local box store. “If you watch people in the self-checkout lanes, some people sail through, no problem,” she says. “Other people read and read and read the instructions and still don’t get it. Finally, there’s a third group; sometimes the equipment malfunctions, and you’re left wondering ‘is it me, or is it the machine?’”

Miller says that she and many researchers studying elections and how people vote have come across a phenomenon that may seem a little strange. Basically, problems with the “interface” between user and machine not only vary from person to person, but can vary from region to region. In other words, a voting method which gives voters no trouble at all in one state can sometimes be problematic in another. “Every state has its own unique political culture, its own way of doing things, its own laws, its own set of circumstances,” says Miller. “The way that the equipment is purchased has to do with that political culture. I co-authored a book about two years ago with a colleague of mine in which we found the state political culture is a significant predictor of the type of voting equipment that you’ll find in the state.”

Miller explains that political culture is bred by a set of circumstances within each state. Economic conditions, the moral fabric of the state, the type of people that migrated to the state as settlers, the traditions and values that are held by the people, all enter into not only which candidate they place a vote for, but the method they use to place that vote. It all has to do with what they spend their money on. (actually, if you think about it, our selection of the MicroVote 464 sort of fits in with the way people in Indiana like to think of themselves: steadfast, dependable, a little behind the times and not too flashy, but you can rely on it to get the job done)

Despite the multitude of concerns discussed here, there is nothing necessarily wrong with the Help America Vote Act. It’s just that in the case of another close, contested election, all these inconsistencies and qualifiers will come back to haunt us once again. We’ve been trying different kinds of election reform ever since the first settler was discovered palming an extra pea while standing in line for the ballot box, but in a tight election, the “human factor” plays a larger role than we like to acknowledge, even in our technological age. “As long as there is the possibility of human error there will be no perfect system,” says Miller (who, for the record, does not think the 2000 election was stolen). “Democracy was never meant to be a 50-50 split. Democracy works well when there are larger margins. When it’s down to 50-50, that individual human error element plays a major role.”

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