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Sunday, November 23, 2008

When Are We Going To Fix Our Voting Mess?

Watching the recount in Minnesota this past week has been very interesting to say the least. On the one hand, the optical-scan paper ballots make the recount open and accountable. Minnesota law is also good in that 'if the intent of the voter' can be determined, the ballot counts. On the other hand, there needs to be a limit to the challenges. In one example, the vote was challenged because the vote for the Presidential candidate was of the opposite party as the vote for the Senate candidate. The ballot was correct and clear. The challenge was stupid.

On the other hand - many of the challenged ballots present quite another face. While the Minnesota ballot is a simple 'fill in the circle' style that is very common among optical-scan systems, apparently we still need to do voter education on how to properly mark a ballot - and what to do if you mess up (ask the election official to give you a new one!)

People are always complaining about these voters - they are stupid and shouldn't be allowed to vote, etc. The fact is that almost twenty percent (yes you heard that right) of our adult population is functionally illiterate. These people are bright, intelligent and hard-working individuals who may have a learning disability, or who have left school early for one reason or another and did not learn (or were not taught properly) how to read. They have managed to hold down jobs, raise families, get a drivers license, and are productive members of our society. But they don't know how to read - and our society demeans and belittles people like this with the result that they go to great lengths to hide this fact from everyone - including even their families. As a result, yeah the directions are posted on the wall. So what? They do their best. But elections only come around once every two years - and in some states, there have been different methods of voting for every election since 2000 (Florida is a case in point) so they don't get the process down.

My personal feeling is that there are a number of issues that need to be addressed.

ONE: The federal election system needs to be overhauled and made consistent from one state to the next. This applies only to US House of Representatives, US Senate, and President/Vice President. Congress should mandate one and one only, system of ballots. The design and layout of these ballots should be decided by a NON-partisan election board. Further, the software in the optical scan machines should be open-source, easily verifiable by computer information systems technicians, and in no case, should 'computerized' results be provided to any private firm on election day. The systems should provide results and data breakdown by precinct in an easy-to-understand format that does not require the intervention of any corporate programmers or technicians. While Congress has no authority to mandate state and local elections, states would fall in line with this or face having to maintain two systems, or two separate ballots (that is done in many countries anyway).
Layout of ballots becomes an issue in a lot of instances. The layouts should include 3-6 options with the candidates names in different placements. A code box at the top would tell the scanner which version it was. The reason is that in races that are not publicized well, or where the candidate may not have a large campaign fund, they may remain relatively unknown.
In the most recent election primary in Montana for instance, one of the Democratic candidates announced that he planned on not campaigning, would not accept any campaign funds, and was just going to sit home and wait for the voters to elect him. Another one raised money, campaigned around the state and really made an effort to get his name out there. (This was a race against a very popular Republican Congressman). On all the ballots, the stay-at-home guy was the first name on the list (alphabetical order) and he won. Most election analysts say that is very common when people don't know (or care sometimes) who any of the candidates are they vote for the first one on the list. In this case, it was assumed that it really didn't matter because the Republican incumbent would win anyway. Rotating choices would eliminate this type of 'winning' since it would spread the votes around among all the candidates, and the one who really did have name recognition would then have a slight edge.
TWO: Since voting is supposedly a right, every voter on their eighteenth birthday, should receive a voting card. All males now get a Selective Service Registration card - all adults should get a voter card. If you have a voter card - and some proof of your address - you should be able to vote in the closest precinct to your home. This business of matching registrations, and voter challenges is a major impediment to some groups. Universal voting cards would solve that problem since everyone IS actually entitled to vote. This would clean up the different registration requirements and eliminate registration drives (saving millions) and all the attendant mess that goes along with that.

THREE: I worked as a poll-worker in Florida with the ESS touch-screen voting machines in 2006. Thank goodness they are gone now! But an election judge/poll-worker actually went with each voter to the booth and physically showed them how to use the machine. This should happen with the optical scan ballots. A demonstration ballot should be available at the check-in table with picto-graph instructions, or someone demonstrating how to mark the ballot properly. Each voter should be verbally advised that if they make a mistake or change their mind, to simply come get a new ballot.
Additionally, some states (California is one) provide a sample ballot with pre-election voting materials that looks just like the real one (except it has 'sample ballot' printed in large red letters across the face of it!). That way people can 'practice' and/or mark this sample to bring with them to the polls as an aid in quick voting. This practice is not only allowed, it is encouraged in California since their ballots are usually heavy with propositions, federal, state, county, city, and special district election choices.
A lot of states have already gone to optical-scan ballots. They already have the equipment. The software needs to be changed to meet the above mandates. States who are still using touch-screens must acquire the new equipment.

Those are just some ideas I have. Feel free to add more in the comments!

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