Let’s acknowledge that Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein’s now-halted bid to recount the vote in three Rust Belt states served principally to earn her a lot of free media and fatten her political fundraising email list. Stein failed to furnish any evidence of the “hacking” and “security breaches” that her many press releases and public comments alleged, but she did scoop up $7.3 million from more than 160,000 donors in less than three weeks.
Nevertheless, Stein’s arguably self-serving drive to recount votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin performed an important public service. As Stein noted this week in a press call to mark the end of her recount effort, she did spotlight some troubling weaknesses in the nation’s election system. Voting in America continues to be plagued by malfunctioning machines, byzantine rules, and insufficient cross-checks and audits to ensure that ballots are properly tallied.
Stein’s recount bid captured the paradox of this year’s super-charged debate over voting. The most sensational claims and counter-claims about this year’s election—that the system was “rigged” and riddled with fraud, as Donald Trump alleged, or that voting machines may have been tampered with, as Stein herself declared—lacked any empirical evidence to back them up.
But there was plenty of evidence that the more-pedestrian, nuts-and-bolts basics of election administration, particularly when it comes voting machines, are still not up to snuff. The system produced no major crisis this year, as Florida’s hanging chads did in the 2000 contested election, but that may simply be because the country dodged a bullet. Competing allegations of voter suppression, voter fraud, and Russian hacking—albeit of emails, not voting machines—have also damaged public confidence, making the need for a well-functioning, credible system all the more urgent.
The system’s biggest problem is the sorry condition of voting machines. A federal judge halted Stein’s Michigan recount before state officials finished their second tallies, but not before voters learned that a shocking 87 optical scan machines had broken down in Detroit on Election Day. Many jammed as ballots were fed into them, producing erroneous vote tallies. Michigan is one of 42 states around the country using machines that are more than a decade old, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Following the 2000 election, states around the country purchased new machines with the help of federal funding provided through the Help America Vote Act. Those machines are now reaching the end of their life spans. As the Brennan Center’s Lawrence Norden and Christopher Famighetti have pointed out, touch-screen machines this year produced “vote flipping,”—a disconcerting glitch that occurs when a voter selects one candidate but another shows up—in Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
Replacing aging machines will be a challenge, given the expense involved, and the ongoing pressure on state and municipal budgets. Some states, such as Colorado, are pioneering new, more economical systems that rely less on costly machines and more on mail-in ballots placed in secure drop-boxes at voter service centers. California will soon experiment with a similar system in parts of the state. State officials overseeing elections may soon have a choice between “spending lots of money on the existing system, or spending less money on something that’s new,” notes Doug Chapin, a University of Minnesota election expert. The Colorado model points to one way that cash-strapped election administrators can start to think creatively.
The nation’s capricious recount rules could also use an update. Stein complained of labyrinthine, burdensome, and costly rules in the states where she sought recounts, particularly in Pennsylvania. Michigan never completed its recount, which was blocked by a successful GOP court challenge, and Pennsylvania’s recount never got off the ground. Wisconsin did complete a recount, but with no material change in the result. Still, the absence of a single set of rules governing elections tends to make recounts a chaotic process.
Another weakness the Stein team pointed out is the absence of a consistent system for auditing elections. Only about half the states conduct election audits at all, and these are done according to varying and not always effective rules, says Pamela Smith, president of the election integrity group Verified Voting. Phillip Stark, a University of California statistician told reporters on the Stein press call that states should consistently back up electronic voting with paper ballots, and conduct routine audits that cross-check electronic results against paper balloting.
Stein herself declared that the system is essentially untrustworthy. “What a mess we have,” Stein said. “The recount [has] shone a light on that mess, and has really lifted up the call for a voting system we can trust. It’s not rocket science how to fix this. This is basic democracy.”
Stein didn’t net many votes, and her conspiracy-fueled recount campaign didn’t win many fans in the world of election administrators. But one aspect of her message—that our voting system needs substantial upgrades to regain voters’ confidence—deserves serious attention between now and 2020.