Nov. 2, 2009 at 10:15 PM ET
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Years after the controversial presidential election in 2000, election activists are still struggling to work the bugs out of balloting systems. The butterfly ballot may be ancient history, but changes in voting practices have brought in a whole new slate of challenges.
"U.S. elections really are a mess," said Arlene Ash, a biostatistician at Boston University who has made a study of statistical issues in elections. She said the chaos was astounding for "a country which has prided itself on industrial quality control and really getting technology right."
Tuesday may be an off-year Election Day, but the occasion serves as a good time to consider how far we've come since the year 2000, and how far we have yet to go.
Nine years ago, the big story of the election focused on ballot problems in the key state of Florida - problems that arguably cost Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore the election. With financial support from the federal government, states rushed to phase out paper ballots and phase in electronic voting machines.
So what's the problem now? "Really, we got ahead of ourselves," Ash told attendees at last month's New Horizons in Science meeting in Austin, Texas. "We got ahead of ourselves in the sense that the timeline for instituting new technology to solve the electoral problems was too rapid for the community to really figure out what the protocol and what the specs should be. So a lot of states bought equipment which actually made things not better."
The glitches associated with e-voting machines have been well-documented over the years since 2000: Some of the concerns have to do with the potential for hacking the vote - but the more immediate concerns have to do with lapses in poll-worker training, poor ballot design and the thousand natural shocks that machines are heir to.
Ash dwelled on one example where a ballot design flaw, plus the weaknesses of touch-screen voting systems, almost certainly added up to the wrong electoral result.
In a 2006 congressional election in Florida, Republican Vern Buchanan beat Democrat Christine Jennings by a mere 369 votes out of nearly 240,000 cast. However, records showed that 18,000 voters in Democrat-leaning Sarasota County passed up making a choice in that race.
Just after the election, a statistical analysis by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune suggested that Jennings would have easily won that race if those "missing" votes followed traditional electoral patterns. Ash's own analysis, which was done in league with Dartmouth mathematician John Lamperti and published in the journal Chance, confirmed that conclusion.
But why were the votes missing? That's where poor ballot design played a key role.
Fla. Div. of Elections via Arlene Ash
The first page of Sarasota County's 2006 election ballot lists Senate candidates.
The Sarasota County ballot required 21 electronic "pages" on the touch-screen machines. It so happened that the Buchanan-Jennings race was easy to miss on the second page of the ballot, because it was displayed in smaller type above a large heading for statewide races, as a continuation of the previous page.
Voters complained to the Herald-Tribune that the race was "hidden," and that the machines made it hard to verify whether they had actually cast their votes. Based on their statistical analysis, Ash and Lamperti estimated that Jennings should have won by 3,000 votes.
Fla. Div. of Elections via Arlene Ash
The congressional race is on top of the second page of Sarasota County's ballot.
Despite challenges, Buchanan's election was confirmed by the courts, and last year he handily beat Jennings in a rematch. Meanwhile, some of the e-voting systems installed in the wake of the 2000 election have been replaced with optical-scan systems, due to concerns about computer glitches.
Problem solved, right? Wrong.
In Sarasota County, for example, ink-reading problems turned up last month during a pre-Election Day test of optical-scan systems. That has led some activists to insist that paper ballots should be tabulated by hand rather than by machines.
Meanwhile, the whole e-voting controversy has given way to new debates sparked by the rise of mail-in voting. BlackBoxVoting.org's Bev Harris, who raised some of the first alarms over e-voting several years ago, has compiled a "top 10" list of potential problems with mail-in balloting, also known as no-fault absentee voting.
Harris has much less of a problem with early voting, in which voters are allowed to cast their votes before Election Day, at the central election office or designated polling places. In such a situation, it's easier to verify that voters are who they say they are, and that the process is conducted above-board.
Ash said shortcomings in voting technology can be as hurtful to the democratic process as good old-fashioned vote fraud. "I think it's a form of theft, and I think we should call it theft," she said. In the Sarasota case, the lapses rose to a level so serious that the courts should have called for a new election rather than blaming "voting error," she said.
"There's just a lot of stuff we tolerate that we shouldn't tolerate," she said.
That doesn't mean every losing candidate should be allowed to use "vote theft" as an excuse. Ash said determining which elections suffer from a systemic, statistical bias is a fit topic for the kind of research she and her colleagues are conducting.
"It is absolutely predictable that some people will be manipulating things in all elections," she said. "The goal of this line of research that I'm involved in ... is to try to make elections less sloppy, so that there's less room for either frivolous mudslinging to say the election was wrong - or to say 'We won' when in fact 'we' didn't win."
And here's one other factor to consider: Ash noted that the United States was the world champion when it came to ballot complexity. "We jam up, on one electoral ballot, typically 40, 50, even 90 different issues, races, questions, choices," she said. Maybe it's time to spread out the ballot decisions - for example, by uniformly scheduling federal elections in even years and the state and local elections in odd years.
What do you think? How much confidence do you have in your electoral system as you gear up to vote this Election Day? (You are going to vote, right?) Feel free to leave your comments below, particularly if anything interesting happens at the polls on Tuesday.
Check out this full-length video of Ash's presentation in Austin. The New Horizons in Science seminar is presented annually by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. I've been on CASW's board for several years, and this year I'm serving as the organization's treasurer.