Eric Olson's Testimony on Maryland Instant Runoff Voting Bill

Testimony before the Maryland Special Committee on Voting Systems and Procedure
January 4, 2001

Thank you, Secretary Willis, and members of the committee for this opportunity to testify on voting systems and procedures in the state of Maryland.

I am deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a national non-partisan, non-profit organization that studies elections – local, state, federal, and international – and advocates reforms to promote increased participation as well as strong and fair representation. We were founded in 1992, and are Maryland-based – in the city of Takoma Park.  Our Center’s president is former Congressman and presidential candidate, John B. Anderson.

We have particular expertise in alternative election systems like instant runoff voting and forms of proportional representation used within the United States and throughout the democratic world, as well as in redistricting and other areas.  We have a keen understanding of the importance voting equipment plays in selecting public officials – and for us it runs far deeper than even the crucial issues illuminated about punchcards and chads in Florida.  The choice of voting technology can either constrain voters and public officials from taking advantage of election system advancements available today and in the future, or it will provide flexibility.  We hope the committee will recommend equipment that gives us the greatest flexibility possible to improve our voting systems in the future.

I have provided a number of attachments that address more specifically some of the voting system reforms in which we specialize like instant runoff voting and proportional representation, and I have provided copies of fact sheets also available on our website,, comparing and contrasting various voting equipment, as well as other materials that may interest the committee.  Because much specific information is available in these supplementary documents, I will be providing more general comments in my testimony today, and I am available to answer any questions today or in the future.

Modernizing our voting equipment will mark a crucial step forward – both in restoring democratic confidence after this divisive election, but also in moving away from antiquated voting machines that can hold us back from implementing advanced, fairer voting methods used in much of the rest of the world.

Only fifty percent of Americans vote in our most important national elections – far fewer cast ballots in federal off-presidential election years, and even fewer vote in state and local elections.  Important as it is to retain the trust of the fifty percent who do vote, it is equally crucial to examine reforms that will bring the rest of our citizens to the polls.

The Center for Voting and Democracy supports efforts at the federal level and in the states to conduct a comprehensive study of possible reforms such as voting by mail and Internet, looking at ballot design, polling times and places, and more.  Purchasing new voting machines should be done in conjunction with an eye toward the future direction of reforms – if, for example, we expect to vote by mail en masse in the future, certain machinery is better than others; if we expect to use instant runoff voting, where voters rank candidates, we will want computerized machines or optical scanners.

Election officials and lawmakers everywhere must make it a priority to restore confidence that all votes cast in the United States will be properly counted, and we commend the committee and Governor Glendening for initiating that process here in Maryland.

Voting Equipment Criteria

When we look at voting equipment we look at several criteria, particularly: ease of use, speed, reliability/accuracy, and flexibility.

Ease of Use: Voters need to be able to understand the machines and use them without glitches, and the machines must be easy for all kinds of voters – seniors, people with disabilities, people for whom English is a second language, first-time voters, etc.

Speed for tallying results: More than simply providing the convenience of quick election night results, the less time spent tallying ballots translates into greater voter trust.  Florida shows that every day spent counting brought greater distrust.  A quick, accurate result does not raise these concerns.

Reliability and Accuracy: What is the rate for spoiled ballots, disqualified ballots, overcounts, etc.?

Flexibility: Does this equipment allow for ranked ballot election systems, can it be used to read mail-in ballots, does it have the capacity to tell a voter that they have cast an invalid ballot and allow the voter to correct it?

Voting Technologies

There are four major voting technologies used: Punchcards, Lever/Push Button Direct Recording Equipment (DREs), Optical Scanners, and Electronic or Touch Screen DREs.  All four were in use in different jurisdictions in the state of Maryland in the 2000 election.  Below are brief summaries of each, including our short analysis of each based on the above criteria.

The events in Florida have unveiled a great deal of problems with our older voting equipment, primarily the punchcard.  We have collected a number of critiques of punchcard voting machines that have been published since the election; they are assembled as attachments.  The most compelling information shows that punchcards are poor in every measure: they are not always easy to use; they are comparatively slow and more difficult to count; their reliability is suspect – particularly with evidence that without proper maintainence it is increasingly difficult to punch out chads and that older, lower quality machines are concentrated in poorer, and minority areas – and; punchcards do not have the capacity to handle advanced voting systems such as ranked ballots or mail-in balloting.

Lever or Push Button Direct Recording Equipment (DREs)

These also use older technology and are harder to service with every passing year.  They may not be difficult for a voter to understand how to operate; counting ballots with these machines is typically fast at the precinct; this equipment is accurate and prevents voters from casting invalid ballots, but it also requires servicing which is increasingly difficult; and while technically possible to administer a limited ranked ballot election, practically speaking, that would be a near impossibility.  They also cannot be used for mail-in balloting.

Optical Scanners

Several types of optical scanner machines exist, including precinct-based equipment and centrally located units.  Both types score high in the categories of ease of use; speed; reliability and accuracy; and flexibility.  The newer precinct units rather than the central units present better opportunities to correct the problem of “overvotes” as long as election officials have enabled the feature to notify the voter if they have cast invalid or spoiled ballots – for instance, casting a vote for both Bush and Gore for President.  Either can accommodate ranked ballots as long as the manufacturer supplies software to count those ballots (more on that below).  Further, optical scanners are the only machines of these four that are fully compatible with mail-in balloting.

Electronic Direct Recording Equipment, (Electronic DREs)

These are modern computerized technologies like ATMs.  Voters indicate their votes by touching the screen or pushing buttons.  They are perhaps the easiest for voters to use, they do not allow “overvotes” and they are most compatible for use by people with disabilities as well.  Electronic equipment produces a fast, accurate result.  Electronic machines are compatible with ranked ballots, but just as with the optical scanners, the software must be acquired for this use.  One drawback is the fact that these are not able to count mail-in ballots.

Costs: Ballpark figures place both the Optical Scanners and Electronic DREs between $3,000 and $6,000 each.  More Electronic DREs would be needed at each polling place than optical scanners, there is only a need for one scanner at each polling place.  Electronic DREs provide benefits relative to optical scanners, these include: greater voter friendliness, greater compatibility with voters with disabilities, and less hassle printing paper ballots.

Perhaps the most important point I can make is to insist of vendors in any Request for Proposals (RFP) that their equipment is compatible with ranked ballot systems.  I have attached a letter that the Center for Voting and Democracy sent to Alice Miller, Executive Director of the DC Board of Elections and Ethics, outlining this view.

Where We Are After 2000

One positive result of the election is the flood of federal and state efforts that seek to modernize our voting equipment.  In the wake of the presidential race, U.S. Senators as diverse as Charles Schumer (D-NY), Sam Brownback (R-KS), Max Cleland (D-GA), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Robert Torricelli (D-NJ), among others have introduced numerous pieces of legislation to assist states and localities in upgrading voting machines with federal funds.
Why Concern Ourselves with Alternative Voting Systems?

Briefly, there are more fair methods of election than the predominant plurality-based, and winner-take-all systems in use for most United States elections.  I will speak briefly here about proportional representation and instant runoff voting, better election systems for choosing legislative bodies and individual offices respectively.

Instant runoff voting is gaining attention fast in the United States, where it was invented over a century ago.  It is a system of election for single winner offices like for Mayor, Governor, President, in which voters rank candidates from their favorite to their least favorite.  It is used around the world, including in elections for president of the Republic of Ireland, for the Mayor of London and for lower house in Australia. It recently received unanimous support from a charter commission in Austin, Texas and from a Vermont commission (see their attached report). Vermont legislation to enact instant runoff voting for statewide elections has been endorsed by the state’s governor and Vermont branches of the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and Grange. Legislation has been debated in several states in the last two years since the idea gained national circulation; one bill passed the state senate in New Mexico last year, while a ballot measure to enact instant runoff voting for nearly all state and federal elections in the state has qualified for the 2002 ballot in Alaska. City and county measures to amend charters to allow instant runoff voting have passed in the last three years in Santa Clara County, Oakland and San Leandro in California, and in Vancouver, Washington.

Instant runoff voting empowers voters in several ways. First, the majority earns its right to decide. Second, voters don’t have to worry about whether their favorite candidate might be a “spoiler” – this factor explains current interest among those on both sides of the debate about Ralph Nader’s presidential candidacy. Third, there are fewer “wasted votes” – votes that do not count toward electing anybody. Fourth, it creates incentives for winners to reach out to the supporters of other candidates.

Proportional representation systems of electing multi-member bodies ensure fair representation of the electorate, and are used throughout most of the democratic world. These systems would result in geographic, racial, ethnic, and political balance on city, county, state and federal legislative bodies.  The majority would always maintain a majority on elected bodies, but they would wield power in accordance with their strength in the electorate, not at inflated levels due to the winner-take-all nature of single-member districts, where up to 49.9 percent of the vote (or higher in competitions between more than two candidates) may not result in any representation.

Different forms of proportional election systems are used in Cambridge, Massachusetts for city council and school board elections; Amarillo, Texas (and over 50 other Texas localities) as a result of a NAACP and MALDEF voting rights case, for school board elections; Chilton County, Alabama; Peoria, Illinois; and there’s a strong bi-partisan effort to return to cumulative voting for the state legislature in the state of Illinois, where it was used for over 100 years. Some proportional systems can be particularly appropriate for local elections.  Choice voting, for example, was in the Model City Charter of the National Civic League for most of the 20th Century.

Maryland’s History and Present

Maryland has a history of using instant runoff voting, and there is evidence here and across the country of significant interest in both instant runoff voting and proportional representation.

Maryland, along with four other states, used instant runoff voting in the early part of this century.  In 1912, Maryland passed a law for the use of instant runoff voting in indirect party primaries, before the state went to a direct primary system.  Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin also used similar systems of instant runoff voting in these primaries.  These systems typically were replaced because Americans had grown used to more rapid results than could be generated by the hand ballot counts required at that time for ranked-choice ballots.

In 1994, a federal judge presiding over a voting rights case in Maryland’s Worcester County on the Eastern Shore, ordered the use of cumulative voting in order to give African American voters a fair chance to elect minorities to the County Council.  While African Americans were 20 percent of the population, evidence presented in court determined that winner-take-all, at-large voting was the reason that no black had been elected to the five-member council.  While the circuit court affirmed that cumulative voting was a legal remedy, it ordered the lower court to give the county the option to choose a single-member district plan.  That plan was ultimately put in place, but a precedent has been set that proportional systems can be used to resolve voting rights cases in Maryland.

State legislative bills have been introduced in the House of Delegates last session and in prior sessions to study proportional election systems and other possible changes – last year it was HJ Res. 9, sponsored by Delegate Weir.  It is my understanding that a similar bill will be re-introduced this session, as well as a state Senate bill for implementing instant runoff voting for state and federal offices.  With several third parties gaining “major party” status in 2000, the next round of election could see multiple candidates running for offices statewide and locally, resulting in many non-majority winners.  Instant runoff voting remedies this problem, while empowering the voter and allowing more votes to count. 

In conclusion, there are a variety of voting systems that the state or individual localities may want to implement in coming years.  Voting technology exists to accommodate all of these options.  Maryland should be prepared for the future by ensuring that any voting equipment it acquires will handle these modern election systems.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify.  Please feel free to use us as a resource as you examine the state’s voting machines and procedures, we stand ready to assist you in any way we can.