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Dan Knight's Soapbox

Reforming the Voting Process

Part 3 in a series on election reform

Dan Knight
November 29, 2000

One man, one vote. It used to mean one white property-owning man, one vote. Today it means one citizen who is not a felon, regardless of gender, ethnic background, or wealth. It's a cornerstone of American democratic political theory.

The current system of choosing the President and Vice President via the Electoral College dilutes that. Most electors are assigned on a winner-take-all basis, either statewide or within an electoral district. In those races, the will of perhaps half the voters is not represented in the Electoral College.

In the first two articles, we've looked at why the Electoral College should be reformed (at least until it is abolished) and how we should reform it. We proposed a system that recognized that electors should be assigned in proportion to the popular vote. This system also increases the viability of new political parties.

Today we need to look at how we vote. The debacle in Palm Beach County (FL) is not unique. Hundreds of thousands of ballots are spoiled in presidential elections around the country. That is one of the first things we should address.

Smart Voting Technology

When a voter is only allowed to vote for a single candidate, the voting system should make it impossible (or at least very difficult) to vote for more than one candidate. The whole mess in Florida might have been avoided if not for 19,000 spoiled ballots. (Of course, had that been the case, we might not be having these discussions of voting and Electoral College reform, so some good has come of it.)

Of all the voting systems available, the one that makes it easiest to misvote is precisely the one used in Palm Beach County and other places around the country. The punch card ballot is separate from the list of candidates (the wings on the butterfly ballot). If the ballot is not well designed, it is easy for some voters to become confused and vote for the wrong candidate, vote for two candidates, or simply not vote because of the confusion.

Old fashioned paper ballots minimize the risk of this, as do voting machines with levers (which can be set to prevent multiple votes) or electronic voting booths. Even without the confusion of butterfly ballots, punch cards are the system most prone to problems: dimples, hanging chad, and multiple votes among them.

Internet users know there are better ways. Online polls typically use radio buttons, which prevent you from casting multiple votes. In cases where a poll allows multiple responses, it will use checkboxes and may invoke a script to make sure you don't cast too many votes. Electronic voting booths would work like that.

There's no need to discuss the technology now, but in brief an electronic voting booth could use buttons (like an ATM), a pointer (mouse, trackpad, etc.) or a touchscreen for input, have a built-in UPS to retain data in case of a power failure, and incorporate redundancy to record votes in three separate locations for validation and possible recounts.

The key isn't the exact technology used, but how it works. If you can only cast a single vote in a specific race, not only can it prevent you from voting twice, it can also give you onscreen feedback about the vote you've cast and, should you try to cast a second vote, ask if you really wish to change your vote. Other suggestions for computerized voting booths include photos of the candidate, color coding, and other innovations to assure that you don't miscast your vote.

The National Vote

Because we vote for president across the nation, Congress should push for a consistent voting experience in the presidential race. States could still have a choice how they handle all other races, but a strong case could be made for the federal government controlling who is listed on the presidential ballot and what equipment voters use in that race. Should they then make that technology available to states and municipalities, possibly at a small fee, so much the better.

With the government running a budget surplus, there is no better time to invest in such technology, especially if the cost can be shared with states and smaller election districts.

The federal government would need to create a commission to investigate areas such as interface, security, integrity, fraud, reliability, and cost, probably ending up with an open source design that could be manufactured by several different companies, thereby bringing about competition and keeping costs down.

The voting system could include locks that prevent access to the vote until polls are closed in Hawaii, addressing the concern that voters on the West Coast are less likely to vote once the networks have called the election.

The other benefit of such a system is that it could allow online access, enabling those with Internet access to cast a secure vote no matter where they might be - just out of town or halfway around the world on an aircraft carrier.

To prevent fraud, whether in the polling place or online, voters would be issued a national voter registration card. This could be swiped when entering the polling place or the ID number entered online. A network of computers would track these numbers, preventing any ID from being used twice. The voter would also need some sort of password to prevent a stolen card from being used.

States and local units of government would be allowed to use the same system for a nominal fee, eliminating the need for them to invest in new voting equipment, since it could be rented as needed from the federal government.

This would result in a system that works efficiently, incorporates redundancy for verification or recount, improves security (I've heard stories of college students voting four times in the same election), and makes it difficult or impossible to vote too many times in a given race.

This system could not only improve voting both nationally and locally, but also give us the potential for some improvements to the system. We'll look at that in the next article.

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