Reform Two Years After Florida
University of Missouri-St. Louis
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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]
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
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
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
Votes in the 2000 Presidential Election by Voting Equipment
Card – Votomatic
Scan – Central Count
counties, 15% of ballots)
darkens an oval or arrow next to chosen candidate on paper ballot. Ballots counted by computer scanner at a central location.
counties, 11% of ballots)
ballot. Candidates are
listed on a computerized screen – voter pushes button or touches
screen next to chosen candidate. DRE
machine records and counts votes.
counties, 15% of ballots)
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.
counties, 1% of ballots)
are listed on a sheet of paper – voter marks box next to chosen
candidate. Ballots counted
Card – Datavote
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.
counties, 6% of ballots)
Scan – Precinct Count
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.
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).
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.
Manuel Roig-Franzia, “New Election, Same Old Problems,” Washington
Post (September 12, 2002), p. A1.
David C. Kimball and Chris T. Owens, “Unrecorded Votes and Election
Reform,” Spectrum: The Journal of State Government (forthcoming, November
Marc Ambinder, “Early and In-Person Absentee Ballot,” ABCNews.com
(September 30, 2002), http:/www.abcnews.go.com/sections/politics/DailyNews/earlyvoting.html.
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
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/).
Michael Tomz and Robert P. Van Houweling, “How Does Voting Equipment
Affect the Racial Gap in Voided Ballots?” American Journal of Political