All Over But the Shouting

Examining the changing nature of the polling place.

by / October 31, 2002
Two years is a long time to hold your breath. In November 2000, the country had to come to terms with election results that were within the margin of error of manual and automated counts. Shortcomings of existing systems were investigated and litigated, and elections officials promised things would improve in 2002.

Not surprisingly, task forces, commissions and blue-ribbon panels have since recommended reforms that could take decades to implement - particularly where authentication of the voter and validation of the ballot are concerned.

That said, new data from the Center for Digital Government indicates that much has been done since we watched and winced as Florida confronted its arcane voting processes on live television in the days following the last presidential election. Although half of all states still rely on chad-producing punch cards as part of the election mix, they are the dominant form of balloting in only three states. (The Florida Department of State developed new voting systems standards that prohibit punch-card ballots, among other things.)

The disappearing chad has company en route to the democracy museum. According to the states themselves, fewer than one-half of one percent of voters across the country will mark a paper ballot with an "X" this year.

After more than a century of service, mechanical lever machines are the dominant voting technology in just two states - Connecticut and New York - where they are used to cast some 95 percent of votes. The New York State Task Force on Election Modernization concluded earlier this year that mechanical lever machines had run their course. It prescribes a plan for significant technological change by the 2004 presidential election.

Although this is the last time the majority of New Yorkers will vote by pulling levers, the Center for Digital Government identified two significant clusters of activity in changing the nature of the polling place. First, polls in 80 percent of states use optical scanning of full-face ballots, which has emerged as mainstream; two small states use optical scanners exclusively for tabulating ballots; and 11 states use the technology to handle more than three-quarters of balloting.

Second, the PC may have finally earned legitimacy in the polling place. In January 2002, an all-software, PC-based election system became the first of its kind to meet Federal Election Commission qualification standards to perform public elections in the United States. Importantly, touchscreen, ATM-like and Web-based technologies have established a significant presence in 21 states. The new digital devices support large-print and multilingual ballots, as well as the audio transcription of ballots, which bring the promise of more voters casting ballots secretly and with integrity.

Outside of the polling place, networked PCs widen the opportunity for casting an informed ballot. Ninety percent of states publish voter pamphlets on the Internet, more than three-quarters make searchable election filing databases available online, and two-thirds post campaign finance information.

Those who administer elections have powerful new tools too. The Center for Digital Government's Best of Breed Program profiles the Statewide Election Information Management System (SEIMS) in North Carolina. SEIMS expedites the exchange of authoritative data across and among the state's 100 counties - both on election night and in the year-round process of voter registration, validation and self-serve lookups.

In Washington state, candidates signed up and paid for running in the fall election from the campaign trail, thanks to a new online service that eliminates the need to travel to the state Capitol or allow for mail delivery.

So why is it still impolite to use the words vote and Internet in the same sentence? The New York Task Force concluded, "Remote Internet voting should not be adopted until there is both greater public access and acceptance as well as technological advances that can guarantee ballot secrecy, security and accuracy." These are nontrivial issues to be sure, but such an explanation also politely ignores the resistance from the professional political class - parties, pollsters and at least some politicians. Its well-honed and carefully timed campaigns would be undermined by authenticated voters exercising the franchise with their thumbs - on a device, and at a time and place, of their choosing.

There is a hopeful lesson in the Northwest about changes in the order of things where elections are concerned. Amid predictions that it would never work, Oregon ran its first state level vote-by-mail experiment in 1980. In 1995, Oregon was the first to use vote-by-mail to decide a federal race. It saved the state $1 million and attracted a 66 percent voter turnout - compared with the national average of 49 percent that year. After tussles between the Legislature and the governor, a citizen initiative replaced the traditional polling place with mail-in ballots as the exclusive way of running elections in 1998.

There have been strikingly few complaints of fraud or undue influence, and signatures on the ballots are checked electronically against those on voter registration cards.

It will never happen, they said. But it did - and it could again.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., , is the chief strategy officer of the Center for Digital Government, former deputy state CIO of Washington and a veteran of startups.
Paul W. Taylor Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the chief content officer of Government Technology and its parent organization, e.Republic. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO. Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet startups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the nonprofit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C. He is creator, producer and co-host of the GovTech360 podcast.

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