Democracy Under Stress
Have butterfly ballots and chads undermined the credibility of how we elect our leaders?
By: Ronnie Dugger
Ronnie Dugger is the author of biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and founder of the Alliance for Democracy, a national populist organization. He has been reporting on the history of elections and the dangers of computerized vote counting since 1987 and is writing a book on the subject
SOMERVILLE, MASS. -- Never before November 2000 has a major political party contended that computers' vote counts are more accurate than those of people looking at the ballots and at each other looking at the ballots.
James A. Baker III, leading the charge of the George W. Bush campaign to stop people's recounting of their own ballots in Florida, righteously exclaimed that the "precision machinery" that counted and recounted the votes for president in the state was more accurate than the recounts by people provided for in Florida law. Manual counting, Baker said, entailed subjective decisions, human error and politics. Rejecting the idea of the people of Florida recounting all the votes they cast for president, which would take about a week, Baker said that would just be extending a flawed process statewide.
The vote-counting systems in Florida are not precision machinery, such as adding machines. They are computers, which are machines that obey orders. The antique Vote-O-Matic punch-card voting systems in use in Broward and Palm Beach counties, where the canvassing boards are recounting ballots, have been associated for 25 years with inaccuracies caused by slipping card feeds and "hanging chads," which are tiny scraps of punched-out vote holes that do not fully detach from the vote card. In effect, the Bush campaign has declared that computer vote counting precludes citizens' recounting their own ballots in the third of the country where the rickety, often error-prone Vote-O-Matic machines are used in elections.
Last week, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), which has been studying Vote-O-Matic-type counting systems for more than 10 years, said that the Vote-O-Matic system "has inherent accuracy limitations" and that "careful manual counting of Vote-O-Matic ballots should always be more accurate than machine counts."
In this system, voters punch out holes beside candidates' names on a card, and the card is passed through a card reader that shoots light through the holes and counts up the votes--that is, the points of light coming through the holes--for each candidate. Sometimes, CPSR said, two ballot cards are sucked into the system's card reader at one time. "Hanging chad can flip open and close. Detached chad can become stuck in the feed path, increasing double feeds and misfeeds. . . . Detached chad can jam over the light or sensor, causing holes [that is, votes] to not be read until the chad blows out of the way."
Peter Neumann, a senior computer scientist at SRI International and one of the leading authorities on computerized vote counting in the country, was similarly skeptical of precision vote-counting machinery. "The Vote-O-Matic is not accurate enough; there's hanging and floating chad and so on," he said. "But hand counting is substantially more accurate in reporting the true intent of the voters."
More in point, Neumann says, is the comparability of what happened to former Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay of Florida in his 1988 race for the U.S. Senate, which he lost by fewer than 35,000 votes out of more than 4 million cast.
"Undervotes"--the failure of votes to register on a voted ballot--occurred on about 10,000 ballots in Palm Beach County this year, where Vice President Al Gore has strong support. In 1988, in MacKay's four Democratic stronghold counties, there were 210,000 people who voted for president but did not vote in the U.S. Senate race. In a comparable U.S. Senate race in a presidential-election year--1980--in the same four counties, three out of every 100 presidential voters did not vote for senator; in 1988, 14 of every 100 did not. In the entire state of Florida, excluding the four MacKay counties, fewer than one of 100 presidential voters--25,000--were not recorded as also voting in the Senate race. Three of the MacKay counties in 1988 are among Gore's big four recount counties.
MacKay believed "very strongly" that the Senate election was stolen from him. He suspected, as a reason for the vote drop-off, the use, in the questioned counties, of a ballot layout that crowded the Senate race onto the bottom of the same page with the presidential race. The voting electorate for president dropped to 86% for the Senate, then jumped back up to 97% for secretary of state. Suspecting, too, "a problem in the [computerized vote-counting] software," MacKay asked that his campaign be permitted to examine it in five counties, but was refused on grounds that it was the secret property of the election-business companies. "A damned outrage," he said of this.
Had Bush accepted Gore's offer to consent to and abide by a manual recount of the entire state of Florida, such a recount would also have provided a statewide test of the computer codes used to tally Floridians' votes, and any vote-counting codes that came into question would have become primary evidence in the fight for the presidency. Neither side has sought to impound the codes, even though they are part of the evidence of how the votes were counted and should be protected from tampering, just as the ballots are. Perhaps especially in Miami-Dade County, where the canvassing board has voted not to conduct a hand recount of all the votes, the vote-counting codes should be sequestered for testing.
Never before in this century have Americans been so mesmerized by vote counting. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) are all calling for a study or investigation of computerized voting machines. This is indeed the time for a thorough reconsideration of the whole U.S. voting landscape, which has grown wild in the shadows as 10,500 local election boards have selected their vote-counting equipment from a fast-changing variety of private vote-counting companies in what is called "the election business," a minuscule, but politically important subdivision of the computer industry.
About one-third of Americans still must cast their votes on the Vote-O-Matic punch-card system. The only reason it's still in place in so many jurisdictions is the cost and trouble of replacing it. Election officials well know that it is an inaccurate system--some of them speak laughingly of "chadology"--but some states have required mandatory recounts in close elections, and the ballots are always available to recount. As many Americans probably would agree now, the use of this system should be outlawed.
"Mark sense," "optical-scan" systems are, in effect, the Vote-O-Matic without the punch card. The voter is given a paper ballot and votes with pencil or pen; the ballot is run through a card reader, which tabulates the marks. One important question about these systems is the error rate--how many ballots are misread or disqualified because the card readers don't like the way the voters marked them or because of stray marks on them? In any event, the retained ballots are available for manual recounts. About 27% of Americans now vote on such systems.
Old 1,000-pound mechanical-lever machines are still used in some jurisdictions, including New York City, where Board of Elections leader Doug Kellner estimates that 1.5% of the voters lose their votes because they don't know they are supposed to leave down all the levers they press until they pull down the red handle to record their vote. But in the mid-1980s, New York City embarked on a misbegotten scheme to replace the lever machines with the very latest thing in vote-counting equipment.
That is the "direct-recording electronic" (DRE) systems in which the voter literally votes on a computer and all tabulation and audit trails are contained within the computer. The voter marks no ballot; there is no audit trail outside the computer. With officious bureaucratic and political fanfare, the city signed a $60-million contract with Sequoia Pacific Systems in 1993 for the technology. But Kellner, Neumann and others refused to believe the system could be made secure. This summer, for a variety of reasons, the city canceled its contract, sustaining a loss of about $17 million.
This was an enormous setback for DRE voting systems, but they are now reported to be voted on by 9% of the American people. Wherever they are in place, citizens are voting blind and accepting insiders' announced vote counts while having no way of double-checking them with manual recounts.
With New York City facing the question of what to do now, Kellner has called for a new study of the technologies available. He warns that electronic vote counting "is almost completely unverifiable because of the technical complexity. Electronic machines are the equivalent of having a pair of computer technicians take a paper ballot box into a sealed room and then telling us the vote totals without anyone able to observe the count." But he indicates his tentative preference for "a scannable paper system, where the ballot is scanned at the poll site and retained by the scanning machine for subsequent verification and hand recount, if necessary," a system of decentralized computerized vote counting.
I am wondering, myself, about vote counting, what the hell is the hurry? The media demand instant results, but that has nothing to do with good government. The last line of the official, back-to-the-wall defense of computerized vote counting is, "Trust us." But in vote counting, we should trust no one. That is why we watched each other counting the votes in the old days. Computerized vote counting is simply an inappropriate use of technology in a democracy. I suggest that people throw out Vote-O-Matics and DREs and consider going back to counting their own paper ballots. Let's have a revolt in some of our precincts. Tell the politicians and the election companies, Hey!--We are going to count our own ballots together. Election night, we'll bring in coffee and doughnuts, pizza, and have a party, as if we can still enjoy democracy with our neighbors. Will they put us in jail for counting our own ballots? Let's find out.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times. May not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission.