Forum Final Response
October 1, 2001
With Responses From
Oct 1, 2001
6 Min read time
I would like to address three themes that run through these illuminating and challenging comments. First, should election administration and technology rank high on the list of political reforms in the United States? Second, does the system of election administration in the United States disproportionately affect racial groups and lower income Americans, and if so how can that be addressed? Third, do we want to keep our decentralized system of election administration?
Before November 2000, improving our methods of casting and counting votes was not a high priority, except perhaps among local election administrators. For years, progressive political reformers have pushed for proportional representation (as Robert Richie does here) and other broad systemic changes, such as those expounded in Joshua Rosenkranz's, Marc Strassman's, and Heather Gerken's commentaries. The problems that election administrators deal with seem much more mundane. But perhaps they are no less important. Spain, Italy, and Japan have switched electoral systems in recent years without profound political transformations. Brazil has invested in more reliable methods of counting votes, and has improved greatly the public's confidence in its elections.
To have confidence in election outcomes, every democracy needs an accurate and secure method of casting and counting votes. The voting technologies used in the United States were inadequate in four states—Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, where the number of spoiled and uncounted ballots exceeded the vote margins. Nor is this problem new. Massachusetts rid itself of punch cards like those used in Florida following a challenged election in 1996 that strongly resembled the controversy in Florida.
But the challenge we face is not about past elections. The proposals of the Caltech/MIT group and many others are about the future. The way we vote is changing. New computing and communication technologies and the demand for greater convenience drive those changes. Internet voting (as Strassman and Cornfield indicate) is here, with the promise of convenient and more accessible voting, especially for many voters with physical disabilities. Still, secure Internet voting appears to be a ways off.
The focus of new voting technologies will differ from past innovations. Past innovations have been driven by the demand among election administrators for a faster count. Further improvements in speed are marginal at best. Today, the questions before policy makers and engineers are about the experience of voting. How can we guide the development of voting technology to make voting easy and obvious, to remove barriers to voting, to give people confidence that their own votes are counted and that elections are conducted fairly, accurately, and securely?
Race and Class
One possible justification for greater national control is the guarantee of voting rights. It is unclear how equal protection, as it is embodied in Bush v. Gore and the Voting Rights Act, applies to voting technology. The courts will have the opportunity to clarify these matters in cases now unfolding, such as Common Cause v. Jones in California.
Several respondents (Smith, Rosenkranz, and Gerken) raise the prospect that inequalities in access to the polls and the counting of votes arose because of race and income. But is there evidence of systematic racial discrimination in election administration?
I looked at two pieces of evidence and was surprised to find that the answer is likely no. First, consider voting technology. The residual vote rate of a county does depend on the percent of non-white residents in the county. However, the racial composition of the county does not magnify or interact with the extent to which ballots are uncounted or spoiled. This suggests that race is unlikely to be a factor in the operation of voting equipment. Second, consider registration. The Current Population Survey asked registered voters in 2000 why they did not vote. Most express some form of disinterest in the election. A surprisingly large number (7.4 percent) state that problems with registration prevented them from voting, as might occur with an incorrect purge of the registration roll. This does not, however, depend on race. Seven percent of black respondents said that they could not vote because of registration problems, compared with 7.5 percent of white respondents.
This does not mean that problems do not exist in some areas, as investigations such as the House Government Reform Committee study have found, or that other factors, such as literacy, pose systematic barriers, as Richard Posner has argued. But the problems encountered in the 2000 election are not problems experienced only by specific groups. They are experienced by everyone.
Election administration is perhaps the most localized public service in America. Federal involvement in voting technology is minimal—a set of voluntary standards under the aegis of the Federal Election Commission but run by the National Association of State Election Directors. The federal government pays for none of the election administration in the U.S.. One may view the problems in Florida as a great example of the failings of federalism. The federal government has left this responsibility to the states, and most states have pushed it off on the counties and municipalities. That's the case against decentralization, and Dan Ortiz, Rogers Smith, and Donna Brazile spell out the case quite convincingly.
Nonetheless, I believe that U.S. elections are decentralized for a simple reason: Americans like to have a lot of elections. We prefer democratic control over administrative appointments wherever possible. On one election day, a voter in California may cast more votes than a voter in the United Kingdom casts in a lifetime. Almost all of these votes are for state and local offices and propositions.
It would not be easy to centralize local elections, because local governments represent many different jurisdictions. A typical county conducts elections for county offices, multiple city governments, and special districts such as water districts. Ballots must be tailored to each local circumstance, and I would argue against Smith that it is indeed "hard to add offices to ballots for different locales." Los Angeles county alone must format about 5,000 different ballots to accommodate all of the jurisdictions and languages within the county. When the county asked five electronic voting machine manufacturers to prepare their machines for an experiment with early voting, only one of the manufacturers was able to accommodate. Even with the existing level of decentralization, many technologies are approaching their limits. Cook County, Illinois, for example, had to increase the number of chads on its punch cards by 30 percent in order to accommodate all of the judicial elections in that locale. The rate of uncounted and spoiled ballots doubled when the county moved to these "high density" punch cards. The problems faced in formatting ballots actually argue for further decentralization, down to the municipal level, or for holding separate elections for each unique jurisdiction. Canada, for example, has separate national and local elections.
But there is a tradeoff. By holding many elections at one time, we benefit from economies of scale. Having separate elections for each jurisdiction in the U.S. would require voting at least ten times during an election year—including primary and general elections for city, county, special district, state, and federal offices. Turnout is already low voting twice a year.
Federal involvement is important, but not in the management of election day itself. Instead, the national government needs to: (1) set mandatory standards for the security and performance of equipment; (2) aid poorer communities to update technology; (3) provide information on the performance of equipment to help states and counties become better consumers of voting technology; and (4) guarantee the rights of voters. These recommendations are eloquently spelled out in the report of the National Commission on Election Reform and in other reports. Beyond these proposals, however, let's leave elections to the states.
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