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Debating Voting Issues, Representativeness, and Reforms

How Should U.S. Elections Be Managed?

Source: Donald L. Davison, "Election 2000: Voting Issues and Recommendations," Insights on Law & Society 2.1 (fall 2001).

Before reading this article, see Background Information on the Electoral College.

The nose-to-nose finish in the 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore raised serious questions about how well the voice of the people was being heard. If the people had been able to vote for the president directly, rather than through the Electoral College, Al Gore would have won. But the re-examination of the voting process didn't stop there: voter registration came under fire, as did other factors contributing to low voter turnout.

Voter Registration
The single largest contributing variable to low voter turnout in the United States is that 25 percent of the eligible electorate is not registered and, therefore, may not vote. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 3 million registered voters were unable to vote in Election 2000 because of registration problems.

Residency requirements, early closing dates, periodic purges of individuals who have not voted recently, and inconvenient times to apply for the voter registration card all contribute to low registration levels. Furthermore, citizens who might feel that they will benefit little from the political system are disinclined to expend the extra effort to register.

Only Switzerland has a lower voter turnout than the United States (see International Voter Turnout Rates). The declining likelihood of citizens to vote does not uniformly affect every segment of the population. Whites participate in elections at rates higher than those of African Americans. Generally, the problems associated with registration and disinclination to vote all fall more harshly on minority citizens and those with low educational levels, muffling if not muting their voices.

Five Voting Technologies
[See Map of Voting Technology Use; Table on Voting Equipment; and CalTech/MIT report on the effectiveness of voting technologies.]

Yet, when measured in air-time, certainly the greatest attention in Election 2000 was devoted to our voting technologies and what might be done to improve them. The Constitution created a federal republic that allocates certain responsibilities to the national government and certain powers to the states. The states hold primary responsibility for conducting all elections. Elections vary by state but primarily are managed by their local subdivisions—typically counties, whose resources and capabilities vary widely.

There are five categories of voting technologies that have been used in some degree during the past 25 years: paper ballots, mechanical lever machines, punch cards, optically scanned ballots, and "direct" recording electronic devices (DREs). Today, there is a movement toward the increased computerization of voting. Yet our earliest voting device, paper ballots , are still used by about 1 to 2 percent of voters, especially in small towns and rural areas.

The mechanical lever machine accounts for about 20 per cent of total votes cast. In this quick process, voters go into a curtained booth and turn individual levers to select their choices. Then they turn a master lever that records these choices on a counter.

Nearly one-third of voting is done by punch card systems (Votomatic and Datavote). Each voter is given a card that fits into a binderlike device with lists of choices on each cardboard page. Voters vote by lining up and punching out the perforated rectangles ( chads) on their cards that correspond to their choices. Punch card systems have unique counting problems because more than one chad can be punched, some chads fall off that aren't supposed to, and some stay on completely or partially that should have fallen off. A computer scores the cards by reading which holes are punched out, so that any chad irregularities throw off the counts.

Marksense systems, or optically scanned devices, resemble standardized testing systems. About 25 percent of voters use scanner systems today. A large ballot card lists the choices, and voters use a pencil to blacken the oval or rectangle next to each choice. If voters change their minds, they can erase individual marks and choose again. A scanner reads the darkest marks and tabulates the results.

The most recent innovation is an electronic version of lever machines. DRE s display possible choices on what is typically an interactive touchscreen that can store choices in memory or on disk. Voters touch or click on the screen to make their choices, and results are tabulated when the polls close. Less than 10 percent of voters use some form of DRE.

Which is the most reliable voting technology? Studies have found that hand-counted paper ballots and optically scanned ballots have had the lowest rates of loss since 1988. Punch-card systems consistently produce the highest rates of spoilage in presidential elections. In fact, nearly 18 percent of counties, comprising about 31 percent of the population, use the Votomatic punch card systems, which has been found to be the least reliable voting system. Researchers concluded that simply changing voting equipment, without any new technological innovations, will substantially lower the rates of votes lost because of equipment.

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