Punch Drunk

The Congressional Black Caucus and the AFL-CIO have both made reform
of the country's election machinery a top priority. A number of
committees and commissions--such as the National Commission on Federal
Election Reform, co-chaired by Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford--have
already formed to propose remedies for the nation's election practices.
Congress is awash in bills, including
one
co-sponsored by Republican
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democratic Senator Robert
Torricelli of New Jersey--neither of whom is known for his commitment to
good government. And at least a dozen states are deliberating action.

All this attention is certainly to the good, because it suggests that
some kind of legislation will come out of last November's travesty in
Florida--legislation that will make it more likely, in former Vice
President Al Gore's immortal words, that "every vote is counted." But
many Democratic proponents of election reform have been hypnotized by
the experience of Florida, where faulty voting machines seemed to
dictate the final outcome. They have made the machines themselves the
agents of disenfranchisement. "America's voting system needs an
overhaul," declared Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. "Butterfly
ballots, punch-card machines, and other outdated systems have
disenfranchised too many Americans in this and other elections." While
they don't say so out loud, many Democrats think that by replacing
voting machines with the most up-to-date computerized scanners, they
will not only make every vote count but solidify a Democratic majority.

Sadly, they're wrong on both counts. It's important to get rid of
machinery that confuses voters, but replacing punch cards by itself
won't solve the technological problem; and the problem of defective
technology may not be as widespread as the situation in Florida would
suggest. Election reform will help democracy, but it may not provide the
panacea that many Democrats--still nursing their wounds from last
November--hope for. Anyway, for Democrats the more pressing problems are
political: Turnout is low, obstacles to registration can be high, and
when an election is close, Republican officials can take measures that
suppress minority voting.

Recently, the most common Democratic election-reform initiative has
been to ban punch-card ballots. Democrats in Texas, North Carolina,
Tennessee, and Oregon have already introduced bills; and there are
lawsuits in Florida and Indiana. "No general election ballot shall be
used which requires the voter to punch out a hole with a stylus or other
tool," reads a proposed North Carolina statute.

There's also action at the federal level. At her first news
conference as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Texas
Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson called on Congress to replace the
punch-card machines. And there is an obvious case for doing this: In
Florida, Georgia, and Illinois, voters who used punch-card technology
had much higher error rates than voters who used optical scanners.
Still, it is a mistake to focus on punch cards.

The worst instance of votes being discarded because of machine or
voter error was in Illinois, not Florida. Illinois counties that used
punch-card ballots had an error rate of 4.08 percent, while those that
used optical scanners with error correction had error rates of 0.88
percent. (Error-correction technology warns voters if they have not
voted for president or if they have voted for more than one candidate in
any category.) In Chicago punch cards were used and the error rate was
7.06 percent; it was even higher in black and Latino precincts.
According to a Washington Post survey, in 51 precincts with a 90
percent or higher concentration of black or Latino voters, one in six
ballots was not marked for president. In nearby well-to-do and primarily
white DeKalb and McHenry Counties, where voters used error-correcting
optical scanners, the error rate was one in 300 ballots.

But look below the surface of these results and you'll find that more
than punch-card technology is at fault. In the 1996 presidential race,
the error rate in Cook County was only 2.7 percent. In 2000 it was 6.3
percent. What made the difference was a 1997 law passed by the
Republican state legislature. For one thing, the law banned
straight-ticket voting, a practice followed by many minority voters. In
1996 Cook County voters could just punch a straight Democratic ticket
with one stroke; in 2000 they had to make hundreds of individual
choices. That was probably the cause of the increase in error rate,
which occurred primarily in those minority precincts where voters were
more likely to vote a straight ticket.

The law also forbade Cook County from using the error-correction
technology it had purchased for the punch-card system after the 1996
election. If Cook County had used this technology, and if
straight-ticket voting had been permitted, the county's error rate would
very likely have been lower than the national average of 2.6 percent,
even with a punch-card system. The Republicans claimed they were trying
to prevent Cook County voters from holding an advantage over voters who
had punch-card systems, but their real aim was to squelch the minority
vote in Chicago. And they succeeded.

Some Democrats have argued that punch-card systems need to be
replaced by optical scanners, but the Illinois results demonstrate that
what really matters is not how votes are entered, but whether there is
error correction. While wealthy counties that used this technology with
error correction threw out less than one in 100 ballots, predominately
black East St. Louis--which couldn't afford error correction along with
their optical scanners--recorded an error rate of one in 12. Similarly,
in Florida's predominately black and poor Gadsden County, where voters
used optical scanners without correction, one in eight ballots was
thrown out. In Tallahassee, where error correction was used, fewer than
one in 100 ballots were discarded. Optical scanners, yes; but only with
error correction and sufficient poll workers to provide guidance to
voters.

Some reformers have focused on a different technological
fix--direct-recording electronic devices that have touch screens. But
these may not even be preferable to punch cards. You can't vote for two
candidates for the same job with this technology, but voters are
bewildered by its novelty. In a study of voting in the past four
presidential elections, MIT political scientist and voting expert
Stephen Ansolabehere found that voters made about the same number of
mistakes with this technology as they did with punch cards that lacked
error correction.

To conclude: In many areas of the country, the best solution may be
to add error correction to existing systems, as Chicago did, rather
than buy the fanciest technology. And for that to work, we must have
state and county political systems that encourage people to vote. The
best voting technology can be subverted by legislators determined to
make its use difficult.

In the wake of Florida, many Democrats have also assumed that
minority voters, who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are the ones most
often victimized by antiquated election technology. As they look to
2002, Democrats expect that if they can get new machines, they will
sharply increase the vote for Democratic candidates. Florida, of course,
inspired this conviction. If the recount had included all the votes that
the machines rejected but that were clearly intended for one candidate,
Gore would have won the state. But Florida may turn out to be something
of an anomaly.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People
have filed suit in Illinois, Georgia,
and Florida. These are states where older punch-card machines--combined
with a shortage of election officials and with partisan attempts to
drive down black turnout--clearly robbed Democrats of votes. Democrats
in Missouri are trying to reform voting procedures in St. Louis, where
blacks were discouraged from voting by long lines and by registration
lists that didn't include their names. But political scientists and
journalists have not come up with other states where the Democratic and
minority vote was suppressed deliberately by partisans or inadvertently
by flawed technology.

When two political scientists, Stephen Knack and Martha Kropf,
surveyed existing voter technology to see whether the least accurate
machinery is concentrated among minorities and the poor, they found that
Florida, where punch-card technology was concentrated among minority
voters, was the exception rather than the rule. Knack and Kropf
discovered that, nationwide, 31.9 percent of whites and 31.4 percent of
blacks live in counties using punch-card technology, and that punch
cards are more likely to be found in wealthier counties than in poorer
ones--in other words, the very opposite of what many Democrats assume.

While Knack and Kropf don't distinguish the kinds of punch-card
systems in use or consider whether minorities and the poor suffer from a
combination of technology and political subversion (as in Chicago),
their study nevertheless suggests that the conclusions liberals drew
from the Florida experience about rampant voter discrimination may have
been unwarranted. Reforms are certainly needed, but they won't by
themselves create a new Democratic majority.

In Congress two principal bills are gathering support. A bill
sponsored by New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer and Kansas
Republican Senator Sam Brownback would spend $250 million per year over
five years to help states and localities buy new equipment and train
poll workers. The McConnell-Torricelli bill is similar but would
allocate only $500 million over five years. According to Curtis Gans of
the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, the
McConnell-Torricelli bill stands the best chance of becoming the basis
for legislation, because McConnell himself is the chairman of the Rules
Committee, which would have to report out any election-reform
legislation. And even though it is by far the stingier of the two bills,
it would still be a step forward.

But the most important battle over election reform will occur in the
states. When faced with any measures that will increase minority (and
therefore Democratic) votes--from new error-correcting technology to
same-day voter registration--Republicans invariably raise questions. As
the debate over election reform begins, many Republicans are trying to
tie measures banning punch-card ballots or funding new poll workers to
measures that will prevent what they claim (without any justification)
to be an epidemic of voter fraud. Their purpose is to cancel whatever
gains might accrue for Democrats, but the effect is often to violate the
voting rights of minorities. On January 31, for instance, the Republican
majority in Wisconsin's lower house passed a bill that would provide
money for new voting machines but also require each voter to present a
special state-issued identification card at the polls. (They wanted to
repeal Wisconsin's same-day registration but didn't quite have the
votes.) In North Carolina, Republican legislators are sponsoring a
similar bill banning punch-card ballots but also requiring photo
identification. These bills would reduce voter error, yet they would
reduce the number of voters, too.

The Republicans are trying to exploit the Democratic obsession with
eliminating punch-card ballots to effect what they say is a compromise.
Democrats have to bear in mind that Chicago, not Florida, is the real
danger. The problem is not simply replacing antiquated machinery; it's
defending the voting rights of those groups most likely to benefit from
the new machinery. The goal is to get an accurate count, indeed, but
also to encourage voting and expand the electorate. In the end, it's
about politics and democracy, not technology.

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