Oct. 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM ET
The good news about voting technology is that the upgrades put into place since the controversial 2000 presidential election have made ballot tallies twice as accurate as they were — but the bad news is that the rise of early vote-by-mail systems could erode those gains.
That's the assessment from the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project, which has been monitoring voting technology and election administration nationwide for nearly a dozen years — ever since the "hanging-chad" debacle of the Bush vs. Gore election. Coming less than three weeks before this year's Election Day, the project's latest report includes some recommendations that could improve the election process in as little as two years.
But first, project co-director Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT, wants to celebrate the good news.
"Voter registration is gradually getting better," he told me. "Voting machines are clearly better. This is a voting-technology feel-good story. We're getting the voter registration process into the 20th century, if not the 21st century."
Twelve years ago, the presidential election's outcome was plunged into doubt due to Florida's poorly designed butterfly ballot. The controversy sparked a Supreme Court ruling that decided the election, as well as a multimillion-dollar federal program to upgrade voting technology. Back then, the "residual vote" — that is, the discrepancy between votes cast and votes counted — was 2 percent nationwide. That number dropped to 1 percent by 2006, thanks in large part to the replacement of punch-card and lever systems with more reliable systems.
For a while, all-electronic voting systems flourished — but after a series of scandals, election officials have been gravitating toward optical-scan machines and paper ballots, which measure up as the most reliable voting systems that are out there.
Due to these upgrades, Stewart said the possibility of a Florida-style situation "is much lower now than it was 12 years ago."
Now the bad news...
Even as the report celebrates those gains, it raises concerns about another voting trend: the growing popularity of no-excuse-needed absentee voting, also known as early voting by mail. Oregon and Washington state have gone to a strictly vote-by-mail system. In seven other states (Colorado, Nevada, Texas, New Mexico, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia), more than half of all ballots were cast before Election Day in 2008 — with many of them sent in the mail.
The report says that election officials should discourage no-excuse-needed absentee voting and "resist pressures to expand all-mail elections."
Why are the experts so down on the uptrend? A long-running study in California has shown that the residual vote rate for absentee ballots is 2.2 percent for presidential races, and even higher for other races and propositions. That's worse than the average in 2000. "The improvement we've gotten by having better voting machines in the precincts may be given back by having more and more people voting at home," Stewart said.
The reasons behind the high error rates include potentially confusing instructions for filling out the ballot, plus the fact that there's no opportunity to catch improperly filled-out ballots at the polling place and give the voter a chance to make corrections. Even the mailing process can play a role: Stewart referred to demonstrations showing that pencil marks can become smudged when the ballot is folded, put in an envelope and run through a postal processing machine. (Note to self: Use ballpoint pen to fill out ballot.)
If you want to cast your vote early and make sure that it counts, it's better to do it in person at an early voting site than to mail it in, Stewart said.
A solution for voter ID?
This year's report also addresses the controversy over voter identification at polling places. Republicans generally favor more stringent ID requirements, such as showing a government-issued photo ID; Democrats generally voice concern that such measures suppress the vote. The report notes that the "debate over voter identification and associated claims of election fraud may become one of the most important issues of the 2012 presidential election."
To balance those concerns, Stewart and his colleagues suggest shifting the burden for identification from the voter to the state. Each state could match up its voter registration database with photos from driver's licenses and other photo-ID databases to create "electronic pollbooks." Pollworkers could confirm a voter's identity by checking the photo that's in the pollbook. If the voter doesn't already have a photo ID on file with the state, a picture could be taken at the polling place and associated with a voter's affidavit of identity for future reference.
"Exactly the system we're talking about hasn't been done, but I think the technology for this is just a stutter step away," Stewart said. The report says such a system could be implemented in some states by 2014, and in most others by 2016.
The MIT-Caltech group also recommends that election officials conduct routine post-election audits to gauge how well they're doing, and use the results to guide corrective actions for future elections. Some activists might want to go so far as to hold up the certification of election results until audits are completed, but "right now just getting localities to do the audits is the first hurdle," Stewart said.
The report acknowledges that some of the recommendations may raise privacy issues for lawmakers to consider at the federal and state level. "You have to think seriously about these tradeoffs," Stewart said.
How about Internet voting?
For now, the concerns about computer security are too great to allow for widespread voting via the Internet, the report says. Some states let military personnel submit their absentee ballots online, or via e-mail or fax. But it's more common for states to let voters obtain a blank ballot over the Internet but require them to submit the filled-in ballot via postal mail.
"The official word [in the report] is that there shouldn't be completed ballots transmitted electronically until the security issues are dealt with," Stewart said. "We also think there should be further research into the security of Internet voting — and if those security issues do get solved, then it might be a different kettle of fish."
What should a faraway voter do? If you're in the military or living overseas, check the Federal Voting Assistance Program's Voting Assistance Guide to find out about the options for receiving and sending in your ballot.
More about voting technology:
In addition to Stewart, the principal authors of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project's report are Caltech's R. Michael Alvarez, Harvard's Stephen Ansolabehere, the University of Utah's Thad E. Hall, Caltech's Jonathan Katz and MIT's Ronald L. Rivest. The report was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Voting Technology Project has also been supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.