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Symposium on Mid-Term Elections

 

Election Reform Two Years After Florida

David Kimball

University of Missouri-St. Louis

            As the first major elections since the controversial 2000 presidential election, the 2002 elections will attract a lot of attention.  In the last two years, election reform has been on the minds of many policymakers in Congress and in every state.  News coverage of the Florida recount informed many people about the phenomenon of unrecorded votes, where voters cast a ballot but fail to record a valid vote for a particular contest.  Roughly 2 million voters in the United States (almost one out of every fifty to cast a ballot) failed to record a choice for president in the 2000 election.  Unrecorded votes occur as the result of “undervotes” (where voters intentionally or unintentionally record no selection) or “overvotes” (where voters select too many candidates, thus spoiling the ballot).  It is no exaggeration to say that unrecorded votes could determine victory or defeat in a close election.  In Florida, where George W. Bush’s official margin of victory over Al Gore was a mere 537 votes, over 175,000 ballots failed to record a vote for president.  Not surprisingly, the handling of unrecorded votes was at the center of the legal and political disputes in the Florida recount.  In at least five other states, the number of unrecorded votes was larger than the vote margin between Bush and Gore. 

            Election disputes in 2000 were not limited to unrecorded votes in Florida.  In several states, reporters or party organizations allege that some people may have voted more than once.  St. Louis, Missouri was another center of controversy, where long lines and confusion over inactive voter lists enabled Democrats to persuade a state judge to hold the polls open past the 7 pm closing time.  To add to the drama, in advance of city primary elections a few months later, the St. Louis Election Board discovered over 3,000 fraudulent voter registration cards (three GOTV staffers were charged with vote fraud).

            In the wake of the 2000 election controversies, several blue-ribbon commissions, government investigators, and academic panels have proposed election reforms designed to reduce fraud and make voting easier.[i]  On October 4, House and Senate conferees in Congress agreed on an election reform package.  Among many provisions, the bill: authorizes almost $4 billion in grants for states to replace older voting methods and improve election administration in other ways; tightens identification requirements for first-time voters who register by mail; and requires states to allow provisional voting by 2004 and implement statewide voter registration databases by 2006.  Provisional voting allows a person not listed on registration rolls to cast a ballot that is counted if the voter’s eligibility is later confirmed.

            Amidst the myriad studies and legislative proposals, many states and counties have taken a wait-and-see approach to election reform.  Before changing election practices, many jurisdictions chose to wait until federal reform legislation was passed (since it may dictate what states must do), and observe how recently adopted reforms work in other places in 2002.  Many view the 2002 elections as test runs for a variety of election reform proposals.  With that in mind, here are some of the places to watch in 2002, where close elections will test new election provisions.

Florida.  Eyes will be on Florida to see if elections proceed more smoothly this time around.  Much of the post-2000 analysis of Florida and the nation has focused on voting technology.[ii]  Table 1 (below) provides summary data on the prevalence of each voting method, a short description of the technology, and corresponding rates of unrecorded votes in the 2000 presidential election.  Figure 1 (below) shows where each voting method was used in 2000.[iii]  Note that punch card ballots, used extensively in Florida, had by far the highest rate of unrecorded votes in 2000.  In 2001, Florida passed a sweeping election reform law that provides money for counties to replace lever machines, and paper and punch card ballots with a newer technology of their choice.  As a result, more than two-thirds of the state’s voters will cast ballots on new optical scan or electronic voting machines.  The Florida law also allows provisional voting and (no surprise) provides a more specific definition of what counts as a valid vote.  The first test of the election system in the September 10 primary did not go so well.  Voters and poll workers apparently had problems with new voting machines, especially in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, and it took a few days to determine the winner in the close Democratic gubernatorial primary.[iv]  For the November 2002 election, both counties may even hire outside election monitors to oversee the election.

Georgia. Georgia actually had a higher rate of unrecorded votes in the 2000 election than Florida.  Like Florida, Georgia passed legislation to upgrade voting methods throughout the state.  Unlike Florida, Georgia adopted a uniform voting system (electronic touch-screen machines) and vendor for all 159 counties.  The state has also implemented a fairly aggressive voter education effort to make voters familiar with the new technology.  Naturally, there will be comparisons between Florida and Georgia in November and beyond as other states decide whether to switch to a uniform voting method, rather than letting counties choose their own technology and vendor.

Chicago.  When it comes to unrecorded votes, Chicago may be ready for reform.  Chicago and surrounding Cook County, which use punch card ballots, had one of the highest rates of unrecorded votes in the nation in the 2000 presidential election.  In 2002, Cook County will use a new second-chance system for voters to check their punch card ballots for overvotes before casting them.  In Table 1, note that precinct-count optical scan systems (which have a second-chance mechanism) performed much better than central-count optical scan methods (which do not have a second-chance mechanism).  Many highly populated urban counties still use punch card ballots, and many are reluctant to pay millions of dollars (and endure the logistical difficulties seen in Florida’s primary election) to buy new voting technology.  The Cook County experiment in 2002 may indicate whether punch card ballots have any future.  Incidentally, the federal election reform legislation will require each state to give voters a second-chance mechanism to correct errors, but it does not ban punch card voting.

Michigan.  A statewide referendum will allow voters to decide whether to keep a straight-party option on the ballot in future elections.  In states that have a straight-party ballot option, roughly one-third of the voters use it and unrecorded votes are significantly less frequent than in states with no straight-party mechanism.[v]  Nevertheless, the straight-party option has gradually been disappearing from ballots in the United States (see Figure 2 below).  Most states that still have a straight-party option are considering legislation to remove it from the ballot.  Conventional wisdom holds that voters profess to vote for the person and not the party, and thus may be unwilling to support ballot features that make it easy to cast a straight-party ticket.  The Michigan vote will test this wisdom.

Early Voting.  You may not realize it, but voting has already begun in many states.  Voters in more than half of the states will be able to cast their ballots before Election Day.  Early voting and liberalized absentee voting rules have become increasingly popular.  In 2000, 14 percent of voters cast early or absentee ballots, up from 5 percent in 1980.[vi]  Furthermore, election reform proposals in many states include provisions for early voting.  Oregon votes entirely by mail, and in Washington roughly half of the votes are cast by mail.  Tennessee and many southwestern states also have high rates of early voting (roughly twenty to thirty percent of all ballots cast).  The stated advantage is that early voting can increase voter turnout and help reduce long lines on Election Day.  On the other hand, early voting may not increase turnout much, it may be more susceptible to fraud, and it can fundamentally change campaigns.[vii]

Missouri. With another competitive Senate race this year, election administration could be important in Missouri (especially St. Louis).  Like several states, Missouri will allow provisional voting for the first time.  In addition, voters will face stricter identification requirements (government I.D. or recognition by two election judges).  You can bet there will some examination of how these requirements play out in St. Louis.  Finally, independent and third-party voters will be allowed to serve as poll workers.

            In addition to a concern for what works and what does not, it is worth keeping in mind that partisan political gain (or loss) hangs over every election reform proposal.  Conventional wisdom holds that Democrats benefit from efforts to expand the electorate and make voting easier, while Republicans benefit from stricter registration requirements and efforts to curb fraud.  Almost as soon as voting technology became a hot topic after the 2000 elections, it appears that Republicans have tended to line up in favor of optical scan systems while Democrats tended to promote electronic voting machines.  Is it a coincidence that electronic machines appear to be more effective at reducing unrecorded votes among African-Americans?[viii]  The election reform compromise in Congress was reached by combining money for new voting equipment (for Democrats) with new registration and identification requirements (for Republicans).  Neither element would have passed on it’s own.  Other examples abound.  The second-chance error correction mechanism for voters in Cook County, Illinois was delayed for more than a year by Republicans in the state legislature.  Similarly, the straight-party ballot option, which tends to help Democratic candidates more than Republicans, has been a source of fierce partisan conflict in several states.  The Michigan referendum is being promoted by Democrats to overturn legislation passed by the GOP-controlled state government.  The politicization of election administration will continue this fall.  The Democratic National Committee is promoting a toll-free number for any voter in the country to report incidents of vote fraud or intimidation.  The Republican National Committee maintains an ongoing database of people that are registered in more than one jurisdiction and may have voted twice in 2000.For many, election reform will continue to be an important issue after the 2002 elections.

 

 

Table 1

Unrecorded Votes in the 2000 Presidential Election by Voting Equipment

Voting Technology

Description

Unrecorded Votes

Punch Card – Votomatic

(505 counties, 28% of ballots)

Punch card is inserted behind booklet with ballot choices – voter uses stylus to punch out holes in card.  Ballots counted by card reader machine.

2.8%

Optical Scan – Central Count

(835 counties, 15% of ballots)

Voter darkens an oval or arrow next to chosen candidate on paper ballot.  Ballots counted by computer scanner at a central location.

1.8%

Electronic (DRE)

(310 counties, 11% of ballots)

No ballot.  Candidates are listed on a computerized screen – voter pushes button or touches screen next to chosen candidate.  DRE machine records and counts votes.

1.7%

Lever Machine

(372 counties, 15% of ballots)

No ballot.  Candidates are listed next to levers on a machine – voter pulls down the lever next to chosen candidate.  Lever machine records and counts votes.

1.6%

Paper Ballot

(260 counties, 1% of ballots)

Candidates are listed on a sheet of paper – voter marks box next to chosen candidate.  Ballots counted by hand.

1.6%

Punch Card – Datavote

(44 counties, 3% of ballots)

Ballot choices are printed on punch card – voter punches out hole next to chosen candidate.  Ballots counted by card reader machine.

1.2%

Mixed

(59 counties, 6% of ballots)

More than one voting method used.

1.1%

Optical Scan – Precinct Count

(510 counties, 20% of ballots)

Voter darkens an oval or arrow next to chosen candidate on paper ballot.  Ballots counted by computer scanner at the precinct, allowing voter to identify and fix mistakes.

0.9%

 

 


[i] To read many of these reports, see the web site maintained by the Election Reform Information Project at http://www.electionline.org/news.jsp?s=reports.

[ii] For more detailed research on the 2000 presidential election, see Jonathan N. Wand, Kenneth W. Shotts, Jasjeet S. Sekhon, Walter R. Mebane, Jr., Michael C. Herron, and Henry E. Brady, “The Butterfly Did it: The Aberrant Vote for Buchanan in Palm Beach County, Florida,” American Political Science Review 95 (2001): 793-810; David C. Kimball, Chris Owens, and Katherine McAndrew, “Who’s Afraid of an Undervote?” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association, Atlanta, November 9, 2001); Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, Voting: What is, What Could be, July, 2001 (http://www.vote.caltech.edu/Reports/index.html); Minority Staff, Special Investigations Division, Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, “Income and Racial Disparities in the Undercount in the 2000 Presidential Election” (July 9, 2001: http://www.house.gov/reform/min/pdfs/pdf_inves/pdf_elec_nat_study.pdf); United States General Accounting Office, Elections: Statistical Analysis of Factors That Affected Uncounted Votes in the 2000 Presidential Election (GAO-02-122, October, 2001, http://www.gao.gov/); Henry E. Brady, Justin Buchler, Matt Jarvis, and John McNulty, Counting All The Votes:  The Performance of Voting Technology in the United States (Survey Research Center and Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley, September, 2001, http://ucdata.berkeley.edu/new_web/countingallthevotes.pdf).

[iii] Hawaii and Alaska are not pictured in Figure 1.  Hawaii used a precinct-count optical scan system.  In Alaska, some communities used paper ballots and others used precinct-count optical scan ballots.

[iv] Manuel Roig-Franzia, “New Election, Same Old Problems,” Washington Post (September 12, 2002), p. A1.

[v] David C. Kimball and Chris T. Owens, “Unrecorded Votes and Election Reform,” Spectrum: The Journal of State Government (forthcoming, November 2002).

[vi] Marc Ambinder, “Early and In-Person Absentee Ballot,” ABCNews.com (September 30, 2002), http:/www.abcnews.go.com/sections/politics/DailyNews/earlyvoting.html.

[vii] For example, see Robert M. Stein, “Early Voting,” Public Opinion Quarterly 62(1998): 57-69; Adam J. Berinsky, Nancy Burns, and Michael W. Traugott, “Who Votes by Mail,” Public Opinion Quarterly 65(2001): 178-197; Grant W. Neeley and Lilliard E. Richardson, Jr., “Who is Early Voting? An Individual Level Examination,” Social Science Journal 38(2001): 381-392.  For a reform proposal that recommends early voting, see Caltech/MIT, Voting: What is, What Could be.  For a reform proposal that raises several concerns about early voting, see National Commission on Federal Election Reform, To Assure Pride and Confidence in the Electoral Process (August, 2001: http://reformelections.org/).

[viii] Michael Tomz and Robert P. Van Houweling, “How Does Voting Equipment Affect the Racial Gap in Voided Ballots?” American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).

 
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Created November 1, 2000
Last updated: October 10, 2002