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How To Fix a Broken Electoral System In Six Easy Steps
Published on Friday, November 19, 2004 by
How To Fix a Broken Electoral System In Six Easy Steps

by Bruce F. Cole

Consider the scene: a national electorate divided not-so-neatly in half, as if by a dull, cosmic meat-cleaver; an election tainted by widespread reports of voter confusion, intimidation and disenfranchisement - much of which is alleged to have been perpetrated by the winning side in the state that tipped the balance in the Electoral College; a looming, sure-to-be-contested recount of ballots, from precincts with strangely anomalous voting patterns, that may or may not change the outcome of the election; and a huge swath of the nation feeling like this election has severely diminished our democracy rather than enhanced it. Now, am I describing the mid-November condition of the US Presidential election fiasco of this year, or of four years ago?

As John Fogerty sings it, and as Yogi Berra coined the redundance-enhanced gem, "It's like deja vu all over again."

So why couldn't we get it right the second time? The short answer is, "Because not enough of us cared." That's an oversimplification to be sure, but what else, at the core, can explain the fact that the landmark piece of legislation that was meant to fix the problems of '00, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, not only exacerbated some of them but, in some cases, enshrined them. Take the recount problem.

In the 2000 struggle for control of the planet from Florida (in hindsight, not even a slight hyperbole), a struggle that should have centered on a technically simple job of transparently recounting all the ballots in that state by hand, the system broke down under the weight not only of the high stakes involved (and a self-defeating recount strategy from the Gore camp), but also of an ambiguous paper trail (the punch card system) that wasn't uniformly handled in various jurisdictions. Many ballots, in fact, were never hand recounted, even once. The obvious solution to that fundamental problem would have been to require systems with paper trails that are unambiguous to read, and to provide uniform recounting rules.

Instead, HAVA encourages the use of paperless voting technology, like touchscreen machines (a.k.a., "DREs") that, unlike their ATM cousins, produce no paper trail for the (sighted) voter to verify before hitting the "vote" button. So recounting a ARE is a meaningless exercise; the machine will merely spit out the same result as it did on election night. No audit is possible (unless the definition of "audit" is changed). Asking a machine to verify itself is not an audit, and therefore it is neither a recount; it is simply a regurgitation. Imagine a banker taking the "word" of an ATM that $37,880.00 was dispersed from that machine over the weekend, without checking the paper trail of cash-remaining in the machine. Absurd. Banks do millions of "recounts" every single day - and much less than the future of the planet is at stake. Is it too much to ask the United States of America to manage a legitimate, biannual audit of the very foundation of their democracy?

As to the uniformity issue, some might suggest that Title III, Sec 301a)6) of HAVA covers uniformity of recount procedures, but it doesn't; it only requires states to establish uniform standards for "what constitutes a vote...for each category of voting system used in the State." If a voting system (DREs) has no paper trail that the voters are able to independently verify in the course of voting, then a "vote" on that type of system (which about 50 million of us - 40% of the electorate! - used this month) is merely a set of digital codes locked inside the machine which cannot be even be inspected, much less recounted.

With that as a preamble, here are 6 simple suggestions (gathered from various sources over the course of the last couple years while working on Maine's new anti-paperless/Internet voting law) for fixing the US electoral system (without resorting, at this point, to the inevitable future remedy of a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College):

  • Make Election Day a two day national holiday (the first Tuesday in November and the Monday proceeding it), eliminating the Columbus Day holiday in October (a.k.a. "Invasion Day") and moving Veterans day from the 11th to the first Tuesday. This might offend some defenders of the White Man's Burden or WWI Armistice aficionados, but what would be a more fitting tribute to those who have "fought and died for our freedoms" than to honor them on the day when we are allowed to exercise our right to vote? Moreover, the side benefits of a national election holiday are enormous: first, the pool of election volunteers would expand by orders of magnitude. It was reported last month that there would be a shortage of a half a million volunteers at the polls on Nov 2. Institute the "Votes and Vets Weekend" and, presto, the volunteer shortage is fixed; another huge side benefit would be that lines at the polling station, although a serious problem - tantamount to "planned disenfranchisement" in some cases - which must be aggressively addressed, would be less of a problem for many people who are getting the long weekend off; and finally, perhaps the largest benefit: increased turnout. Americans might begin to see, if election day is important enough to be a holiday, that voting is something we take as seriously as the rest of the democratic world where election holidays are the norm. Maybe the first three days of the weekend would actually evolve toward a civic engagement on a national level that would spur a quantum leap for democracy.
  • Eliminate DREs, except as they are adapted for handicapped voters. If Representative Rush Holt's bill, currently stalled in Congress by industry-beholden GOP leadership, were to pass and thereby outlaw paperless voting technology, DREs would deservingly become a herd of white elephants. These machines are not only as non-transparent as machinery can be, but they are also fraught with disaster potential (power outages from November hurricanes in Florida, anyone?) and, as the multiple DRE horror stories from the last three elections show, they also exhibit a surprising capacity for spontaneous failure on a regular basis. They are, however, an appropriate technology - if they are also equipped with a paper trail that sighted, literate users can verify - for the long overdue extension of private voting rights to sight- and literacy-impaired individuals who, up till now, have had endure the second-class experience of assisted voting. There are enough DREs in service across the nation right now that can be retrofitted with printers and voice-prompting features to be used, one per polling station, for the entire nation's HAVA disabled-access requirements. The states, like Georgia, that have bought the whole paperless enchilada, can unload their albino pachyderms for a discount to states (like Maine) that need to have one in each precinct by Nov. '06 to serve the disabled community. Georgia's machines can then be replaced by optical scanners or (heaven forbid) hand marked ballots (remember the holiday and the pool of volunteers which could be tapped for hand counting) which both beat the DREs hands-down for accuracy, glitch-freedom, spoilage rates, power-outage immunity, and recountability. Remember also that the controversies swirling around optically scanned votes in Florida and New Hampshire right now can (and in NH's case, will be) easily be resolved by merely recounting the ballots by hand; DRE controversies can never be resolved.
  • Institute Regular Random Sample Recounts (RSRs) across the nation. This is a simple concept that would use a Ping-Pong ball-style lottery, for example, to impartially choose a small sample of random precincts from each state - and from within each non-paperless machine type in each state - for the purposes of a regular, scientific audit of the country's election machinery. The audit would be, again, a hand counting affair that could utilize volunteers for most of the work, and it would have built-in Escalating Recount Triggers (ERTs) that would require further random recounts of like machinery as any that underperformed, if any significant discrepancies were discovered. The minimal costs of the initial RSR would be on each state's tab, but any ERTs would be back-charged to the manufacturer of the underperforming equipment. (Note: the Holt bill's recount-audit provision needs to be amended to make it truly random.) If national RSRs were in place today, we would know already what grade to give the last election, and the entire electorate, instead of just over half of it, would be confident either that the people had truly spoken, or what specific problems might need their attention (or who might need to be prosecuted).
  • Ban the Internet for voting, machine networking, and vote tabulation, across the nation. The Army was about to institute an experimental (translation: foot-in-the-door) Internet absentee voting system for overseas troops this year, but an advisory panel came back with the clear warning that this is a Pandora's box that must stay shut; the Army responded by dropping the project. If they hadn't, Maine's new law banning Internet voting would have brought the issue into the courts and, I'm confident, would have set a national precedent against the practice. Anyone who knows anything about the 'Net knows that Internet voting is an open invitation to electoral fraud, mischief, accident and disaster. The unfolding saga in Florida this year may well involve the Internet. George W. Bush won't even use the Internet to write notes to his own father (the mortal one, that is), for God's sake.
  • Require voting machine manufacturers to stay out of politics and forbid state election officials from becoming industry lobbyists. There is an incestuous relationship between our electoral bureaucracy and the voting machine industry that has been recently documented by Common Cause. This is the root cause of the spread of faulty machinery (DREs and hackable, PC-operated central tabulators) and must be stopped.
  • Make same-day voter registration a national standard. In Maine, we allow voters to register at the polling station, as long as they bring in the proper documentation. There are no stories of snafus around this issue that I have heard in this state - ever - and provisional ballots are much less used here, largely for that reason. So what's the big deal? Why don't other states allow registration at the polls? Simple answer: ex-convicts. Maine allows voting by those who have been released from prison, and therefore our election officials have no need to conduct time consuming, error-prone, and suspiciously motivated purges of the voting rolls. And why should we? Do we really want, as a people, to proclaim every two years that complete rehabilitation from a criminal past is impossible? After all, that is what we are saying when we prevent those who have "paid their debt to society" from reentering the voting booth, that that debt can never be fully repaid. No wonder that both the crime rate and voter dissatisfaction are higher in Florida than in Maine.

These six items, it seems to me, are the minimum we need to do to restore confidence in our democracy (not that there aren't other critical measures I haven't thought or heard of).

The last four years have seen many American disasters: 9/11, the bankruptcy of our treasury, the destruction of our international reputation, and the trashing of our civil liberties, to name but a few. But none of these calamities is as fundamentally crippling to our nation as the loss of confidence that our elections are fair and accurate. We must restore that confidence; without it, we are a "democracy" only in name.

Bruce Cole is a carpenter, songwriter and activist living in Maine. He recently helped draft legislation, which eventually passed, outlawing paperless voting machines and online voting in the state. He can be reached at


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