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Boston Review

Wasted Votes?
A response to The Search for New Voting Technology
By Rob Richie
September 2001

Stephen Ansolabehere and the Voting Technology Project deserve great credit for drawing national attention to the millions of votes that were lost in our recent national elections due to faulty voting technology and procedures. If fully implemented, Ansolabehere's near-term recommendations would significantly improve elections, and his long-term vision for voting presents a provocative challenge to reformers.

But we can and must do better. Ansolabehere's analysis is limited in three respects: 1) acceptance of current degrees of decentralization in election administration, with a corresponding acceptance of inadequate funds for democratic electoral reform; 2) lack of attention to the tens of millions of votes "wasted" in 2000 in races where the result never was in doubt and on "lesser of two evil" candidacies; and 3) concern with only that half of American adults who already vote or intend to vote, thus missing how voting technology could facilitate reforms like instant runoff voting and proportional representation that could boost turnout in addition to enhancing the power of current voters.

Ansolabehere is right that we have a tradition of decentralized election administration and that such decentralization fosters innovation. But I question making decentralization a fundamental requirement of American elections, particularly if it trumps federal responsibility for setting standards and providing ongoing funds for election administration.

The Constitution provides Congress with the authority to administer federal elections, but election administration has become decentralized because we have no genuinely national elections. All members of Congress are elected within states, and electoral votes are awarded in presidential races solely according to the vote within states. The result is that dramatic variations from state-to-state in voter turnout and registration rates have no bearing on how much federal power each state has. But in modern America, the rights of states should not outweigh the rights of individuals, and I expect that over time we will move toward real equality in federal elections. Doing so will require instituting a system of direct election for president that ensures that every vote, wherever it is cast, has the same weight, or adopting a national system of proportional representation for congressional elections. I believe current trends in our elections will make these reforms credible within a decade, particularly if Republicans also lose a presidential race despite winning the popular vote. Once we have genuinely national elections, national election standards will quickly follow.

Even without direct election of the president or proportional representation in congressional elections, however, we need not show excessive deference to the tradition of allowing counties and states to manage and mismanage elections. Better to take what is best from our current processˇthe opportunity for local innovators to improve electionsˇand have the federal government ensure that such innovations are quickly adopted around the country. As soon as technology was developed years ago to allow voters to correct overvotes on punch card voting machines, for example, that capacity should have been adopted on punch card equipment everywhere. As shown by Florida's great number of overvotes in 2000, however, it wasn'tˇwith dramatic consequences for the legitimacy of our democracy.

The fundamental reason that innovative practices are not quickly replicated is the lack of sustained federal election funding. Federal commitment of a billion dollars a yearˇabout what we spend on the military every single dayˇwould provide the means for all counties and states to modernize elections and expand democracy. These federal funds would be tied to meeting federal standards for election performanceˇstandards that, with funding, nearly all localities and states would be willing to meet. With such standards in place, Florida counties would have modified their equipment to allow voters to correct overvotes because otherwise they would have lost federal funds. In the unlikely event that localities refused funds in order to maintain outmoded practices, federal mandates could be pursued.

With federal funds tied to standards, we could eliminate long lines by having an appropriate number of polling stations. We could have sensible polling hoursˇno more poll-closings at 7:00 P.M., let alone the 6:00 P.M. closing-time found in Kentucky and Indianaˇbecause states would have more funds to pay pollworkers. Following the model of the West Coast, each state could mail voter guides to all registered voters. We could better accommodate the needs of people with disabilities and with different degrees of English literacy. And so on.

We also would not have to settle for optical scanning as our voting system of choice in 2004. Ansolabehere is right that optical scan equipment, with appropriate features, is the best paper-based ballot system. But the best direct recording electronic (DRE) equipment essentially eliminates both voter error and barriers to voting for many specific groups of people. The Voting Technology Project analysis unfortunately lumped a range of DREs into a single category, but the latest models are much better than older ones. In their very first election with a DRE system, for example, more than 99 percent of voters in Riverside County, California cast a valid vote for presidentˇand voter satisfaction was just as high, indicating that the system worked well for those unfamiliar with computer technology.

With appropriate funding, voting machine vendors could eliminate the errors of the previous DRE models, address legitimate concerns about audit trails and ensure that no one at the polls is left behind. To eliminate undervotes, a DRE system could direct voters to any contest or ballot question that was overlooked. For people more comfortable in languages other than Englishˇand more than one in five Americans do not speak English at homeˇa DRE system could allow voters to choose to read their ballots in a wide range of languages. By providing the option of voting with large type or with headphones, DREs can allow the millions who cannot see wellˇan important constituency opposed to optical-scan systemsˇto cast a secret ballot without assistance.

For those like Ansolabehere, concerned about voting by mail, DREs could allow voters to cast valid votes at a wide range of polling places, not just in their home precincts.

Ansolabehere's prescription also falls short by not addressing how our current electoral rules waste votes and suppress potential participation. If most election administration reformers were to be believed, The New York Times was right last December when it editorialized: "Any wise observerˇdomestic, foreign, or interplanetaryˇhas to conclude that Americans' final verdict will be that theirs is a country in need of new voting machines, not a new electoral system." But our low voter turnout and stark class inequality in who votes indicates our system is in need of far more than better machines and procedures. When updating voting equipment, we should ensure that it accommodates the demands of more extensive reforms even if they are unlikely to be on Congress's immediate agenda.

Instant runoff voting is one example. The biggest flaw in Florida's election was among the least discussed despite being correctable by mere state statute: George Bush won all of the state's electoral votes even though more Floridians at the polls preferred Al Gore. As with most American elections, Florida allocates its presidential electors according to plurality voting rules, meaning that the candidate with the most votes wins all, even if opposed by a majority. Plurality voting can thus violate majority rule and often suppresses non-major-party candidacies, as voting for such a candidate can have the perverse impact of helping to elect the major party candidate you most dislikeˇa perversity very familiar to those who debated the merits Ralph Nader's Green Party candidacy in 2000 and to the roughly 5 million (according to a Washington Post poll released on the eve of the election) who voted for major party candidates other than Nader only because they didn't want to "waste" their votes.

Used for decades in Australia and Ireland, considered in thirteen state legislatures this year, and on the ballot for major elections next year in San Francisco and Alaska, IRV lets voters rank candidates in order of choice rather than just vote for one. If no candidate gets a majority of first choices, candidates with the lowest percentage of the vote are sequentially dropped. Each ballot cast for those eliminated candidates is added to the totals of the next choice indicated on that ballot until a candidate achieves a majority. IRV duplicates a series of traditional runoffs, but without the need for additional elections that cost taxpayers and candidates more money and often lead to declining voter participation.

With IRV, even the colossal election administration errors in Florida would not have denied Al Gore the presidency. Given a straight choice between Gore and George Bush, Gore would have won Florida and its electoral votes. Of course with IRV, John McCain might have bolted the Republican Party and run as the independent he has shown himself to be in the new Congress, while in 1992 Ross Perot's votesˇwhich prevented a majority winner in all but one stateˇlikely would have narrowed Bill Clinton's electoral and popular vote margin over the senior George Bush. IRV has no ideological bias: its only bias is toward majority winners and the better choices and more diverse candidacies we need to mobilize higher voter participation.

IRV would reduce wasted votes in executive office elections and ease the administrative burden in jurisdictions with traditional runoffs. But fair representation in government also demands proportional representation (PR), the system used in the great majority of well-established democracies. PR is based on the principle that any grouping of like-minded voters should win legislative seats in proportion to its share of the popular vote. Whereas the winner-take-all principle awards 100 percent of the representation to a 50-percent-plus-one majority, PR allows voters in a minority to win their fair share of representation. PR comes in many forms, but in all a party or grouping of voters that wins 10 percent of the popular vote in a ten-seat constituency would win one of the ten seats; 30 percent of votes would earn three seats, and so on.

PR would dramatically increase voter choice and representation of women and racial minorities in our congressional elections. Under current winner-take-all rules, few House elections are competitive. In both 1998 and 2000, more than 98 percent of incumbents were re-elected, and fewer than one in ten races were won by less than 10 percent victory marginsˇthe traditional definition of a competitive race. Congressional districts are inherently one-sided because of voter preferences in districts, not because of campaign financing, incumbency or other factors. Far more votes were wasted in these fundamentally one-sided congressional races than those lost due to bad voting equipment.

Accepting plurality voting and single-member districts as a given, Ansolabehere doesn't address IRV and PR and how technology could make their adoption more feasible. As done in most nations, IRV and PR could be carried out using paper ballots; indeed, despite IRV's seemingly complex demand to rank candidates, more than 99 percent of voters in Ireland's IRV presidential election cast valid votes. But given our great number of elections and cultural suspicion of paper ballots, American advocates of IRV and PR have found that the capacity to count them on standard voting equipment is imperative for their widespread adoption.

The easiest way to ensure that our voting equipment can handle IRV and PR would be to ensure that all equipment has the capacity to record and store an electronic record of each ballot. Doing so not only makes it much easier to use IRV and PR, but also provides an electronic means of auditing elections; on their own, paper ballot trails are vulnerable to the malicious or accidental distortion of the results. But many election administration reformers have overlooked this problemˇin part because they fail to focus on flexible equipment that could facilitate participation-enhancing reforms.

Ansolabehere and his colleagues have taken an important step on the road to democratic reform. But for those who wish to complete the journey, much distance remains to be traveled.

Robert Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting & Democracy .


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