Democracy on the Cheap: The Failure of America's Electoral Infrastructure
Published on Friday, December 12, 2003 by
Democracy on the Cheap: The Failure of America's Electoral Infrastructure
by Steven Hill and Rob Richie

After the 2000 presidential race, many Americans saw new voting technology as the obvious means to avoid the millions of votes lost due to voter error around the nation. Following that botched election, Florida spent millions of dollars for new touchscreen voting equipment.

Yet this equipment had major problems in its debut in the 2002 gubernatorial elections. In the hotly contested Democratic primary, the touchscreen equipment used in Dade County produced a higher rate of non-votes that disproportionately hurt minority voters than the old punchcard equipment, according to the ACLU. It was deja vu all over again. Now a burgeoning national movement questions the security of such equipment and calls for paper trails that will provide a voter-verifiable audit trail.

When made fully secure and publicly accountable, touchscreen voting offers important advantages. Take Brazil's experience. A country of 180 million people, with great diversity and vast stretches of rural territory, much like the United States, Brazil has a national touchscreen system. When voters select a candidate, they see the name, party and photo of the candidate in order to verify their vote. No overvotes, no undervotes, no confusing butterfly ballots. No disfranchisement of language minorities and voters with disabilities or low rates of literacy.

There's a simple reason the United States is playing catch up to Brazil -- and most other nations -- when it comes to modernizing election administration. Under our decentralized election administration regime, we have a shockingly weak national commitment to fair and secure elections. In fact the main players in running elections are the more than 3,000 county election administrators scattered across the country.

With the 2002 Help America Vote Act, the federal government for the first time established a few national election standards and provided some funds to states. But those standards are weak, and funds available for only three years. There's little training for election administrators, and too often county election chiefs are selected based more on whom they know than training and experience. And there's limited guidance to assist counties when they bargain with the equipment vendors.

The vendors themselves spark questions. Three companies dominate the field: Elections Systems and Software, Sequoia Pacific, and Diebold. They are relatively small profit-making corporations, often cutting corners to make a buck, stretched beyond their capacities, strained by the myriad of state bodies certifying equipment, and all to quick to put aside public interest concerns if not spelled out in contracts. Their equipment isn't nearly as good as it could or should be.

Vendors make up for these deficits through political connections. They typically hire former election regulators like former California Secretary of State Bill Jones as their sales representatives. Besides the government-to-industry revolving door, they have been known to give big campaign contributions. In fact there is no firewall between the corporations who run elections and partisan politics. The CEO of Diebold, for example, attended strategy pow-wows with wealthy benefactors of George Bush and wrote in a fund-raising letter that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year" -- even as his company seeks to win Ohio's multimillion dollar contract for new equipment from the Republican-run state government.

The manufacture and selling of voting equipment shouldn't be just another business. There indeed is something special about our electoral infrastructure and administration that cries out for a federal system with national standards and regulations. After September 11 we moved to have federal workers monitoring airport security. But after election 2000, we did nothing comparable for our elections.

Imagine an alternative reality, in which the federal government used its immense resources to invest in developing voting technologies that were truly cutting edge and secure, with open source software, voter-verified paper trails, national standards and the public interest incorporated without resistance. Imagine election administration led by qualified and properly trained administrators and poll workers. Imagine national voter registration lists that better assured clean lists as well as "universal voter registration," resulting in automatic registration of 50 million new voters, many of them young, poor and minority. All counties and states would be held to a high standard, with the federal government partnering with them to meet those standards.

But no, instead we are stuck with the current shadowy vendors and decentralized hodge-podge that lately have made U.S. democracy a laughingstock around the world. Call it democracy on the cheap. The debate over voter-verified paper trails is a window into a far bigger problem of decentralized elections that inevitably will lead to future debacles until corrected. We can no longer passively accept an election administration regime gone deeply awry.

[Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy ( and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" ( Rob Richie is executive director of the Center.