Clunk, punch, churn and whirr - the sounds of democracy in action

Voting Reform
Click to follow
The Independent US

Whoever becomes the next American president, one of the new administration's most pressing considerations will be an overhaul of the voting system that has turned the world's mightiest democracy into a laughing-stock of incompetence and imprecision.

Whoever becomes the next American president, one of the new administration's most pressing considerations will be an overhaul of the voting system that has turned the world's mightiest democracy into a laughing-stock of incompetence and imprecision.

This may be the land of Bill Gates and the internet, but many voters who went to the polls on 7 November were forced to record their choices on bits of cardboard that were then read by creaky, out-of-date machines of dubious accuracy.

That, above all, explains why there is a problem in Florida. In most elections, even large numbers of discarded or inaccurately read ballots don't make much of a difference. But this was not most elections, and the closeness of the contest between Al Gore and George W Bush exposed the rottenness of a system that should have been fixed years ago.

For example, the punch-card ballot - the one that is now the subject of manual recounts in three Florida counties - is based on technology developed at the beginning of the last century and was never intended for use in elections. As long ago as 1975, a study conducted for the Federal Election Commission showed the accuracy of punch-card reading machines at only 99.5 per cent, a margin of error that would translate into 30,000 votes in the present dispute in Florida.

In 1988, the National Bureau of Standards urged electoral officials to get rid of punch-card voting after analysing the havoc wreaked by hanging, snagging and other imperfectly punched out "chads" in an election in - of all places - Palm Beach County, Florida. Four years ago, another chad dispute led Massachusetts to ban punch-card balloting; sadly, most of the rest of the country has failed to follow suit.

Around 37 per cent of voters in this election used punch cards. Another 20 per cent used an even more arcane system of mechanical machines.

On top of that, the wide degree of autonomy granted to local counties for the design and counting of ballots has left the system bereft of any kind of overarching organisation with the authority or the financial muscle to make meaningful improvements.

Hence the mess in Florida: thousands of voters energised by grassroots campaigners for the two leading campaign teams, who then inexplicably failed to vote for anyone for president, and even more thousands who accidentally voted for the wrong person, or voted twice. The ugly truth, no matter what the lawyers say, is that the voting technology is simply not precise enough to determine a sure winner.

Among measures being discussed while the Florida crisis drags on is a standardised ballot for each electoral race. There is also talk of initiating federal funding to help local counties pay for new machinery - most probably some kind of touch-activated computer screen that would offer photographs as well as names of candidates, automatically prevent double voting, and show voters a review of their choices before making them final.

But the machines are not all that ails American democracy. The key reason half the country does not vote in elections is because of low voter registration - something caused both by apathy and bureaucratic obstruction. A new system enabling voters to register when they inform their local Department of Motor Vehicles of a change of address left thousands of people disenfranchised this year because state DMVs simply did not pass on the information to election registrars as promised.

Expectations of voter turnout are now so low that when people do flock to polling stations there is no reasonable way to accommodate them - hence the sight of doors being slammed in voters' faces in many battleground states at 7 or 8pm on election night.

One of the benefits of the Florida fiasco is that some of these issues have triggered enough outrage to encourage reform. The question is whether that first spurt of energy will endure once the fiasco is finally over.

Comments