Third World democracy

The real problem with the American election system isn't fraud, it's good old-fashioned incompetence. And that's something we can fix -- if we have the will.

Published November 18, 2004 7:30PM (EST)

A few months before the presidential election, Matthew Lockshin, a soft-spoken 23-year-old philosophy student at UC-Berkeley, began to feel adrift in the political culture. He was bothered by a sense of powerlessness over the process: If you're interested in politics and you live in Berkeley, Calif., you quickly realize you can't really do much to sway the mood of the country. You can whine, you can blog, you can Meetup, but in the end where does that get you?

Lockshin felt he needed to do something. So, like hundreds of other Californians, he booked a flight to Florida, and a week before the big day Lockshin found himself in Miami, volunteering with Election Protection, the nonpartisan umbrella group set up to monitor the integrity of this year's vote.

Monitoring the election was an odd experience, Lockshin says; long moments of despair punctuated by spikes of exhilaration. Many Americans, even those disgusted by the chaos of 2000, do not generally appreciate the full measure of their electoral system's disrepair, and Lockshin was astonished by the mess he confronted at the polls. In the days he observed the election (people in Florida could vote early for a couple of weeks before Nov. 2), several voters approached him with extraordinary tales of disenfranchisement, or near disenfranchisement. The dispiriting thing was that many of those people could not be helped. One woman told Lockshin that she'd attempted to vote for John Kerry, but the touch-screen electronic voting machine she was at kept switching her selection to George W. Bush. By the time she'd cast her ballot, it was too late to rescue her vote, Lockshin says.

There were, to be sure, sublime moments as well, times when Lockshin was able to directly help people cast their votes. When voters showed up at the wrong precinct or were turned away from the polls by incompetent poll workers, Lockshin managed to assist them. "On that level I made a difference," he says. "Maybe a small difference."

But after watching what goes on in an election, Lockshin, like many other volunteer poll watchers, finds it difficult to feel fully confident in the final results. It isn't that he believes that Bush stole the election; instead, Lockshin says he just wasn't impressed by what he saw on Election Day, and he isn't inspired to place a great deal of trust in a system that so easily creaked and groaned under the pressure.

In Miami, as in just about every other big city around the nation, some people -- mainly in low-income neighborhoods -- were forced to wait in line for hours to vote to cast a ballot. Across the nation, voters were made to vote on machines that are either demonstrably careless with people's ballots (like punch-card systems) or that don't provide any measure of transparency in the tally (like electronic systems). Still other voters were disenfranchised because they'd been inadvertently struck from the rolls, or because they'd been mistaken for felons, or because their absentee ballots weren't mailed out in time, or their provisional ballots were unfairly tossed out.

Lockshin wonders how you can trust a system that treats some voters so well while treating others so badly. "An election has to be fair, it has to be indisputably fair," he says. "The way that this election was carried out, there's no way to know. There's just no way to test the fairness of it."

Lockshin is not alone in feeling that the election may not have been fair. In the last couple of weeks, many have argued that Kerry won the election and that Bush stole it. On close examination, there is as yet no compelling proof that such is the case. But the suspicions are not without some cause: They reveal a real feeling among many in the electorate that American elections don't work very well anymore, that American democracy is broken. Volunteers and reformers who watched the process on Election Day can testify to this fact. Around the country, in big states and small states, swing states and safe states, in a thousand ways the electoral system failed us on Nov. 2. At best, it barely worked, only just managing to deliver a result. But because it worked so poorly, many people don't find much comfort in the result, and for good reason.

This, clearly, is a problem. And it's one that must be fixed. So what can we do?

At the moment, those who want to improve democracy haven't quite settled on a way to attack the problem. So far there's been a lot of noise, what Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, chairwoman of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition -- a pioneering, nonpartisan group of reformers in South Florida -- calls the "destructive" way of responding to a broken system. "The destructive method is to run around crying fraud without sufficient evidence, destabilizing the system," she says.

"In my view," she added, "the real question is whether we saw anything on Nov. 2 that gives us pause about the system. The answer to that is a resounding yes ... There is so much that we saw that shows that the system is flawed, unworkable, prohibitively expensive, inaccessible, intended to keep voters away, insecure, lacking in transparency and open to manipulation, that if we don't fix it, we are basically on a collision course with the decay of our democracy."

It's a grim prognosis. But it can be fixed, Rodriguez-Taseff insists, especially if activists take on the challenge. Before the election, many people -- people like Lockshin -- felt irrelevant with respect to politics in America. Now, after the election, many Americans are distressed by the results. Why not channel this despair into something productive for the future? asks Rodriguez-Taseff. Why not work to reform the abysmal American electoral system?

Just two weeks have passed since Election Day, and many states haven't even yet finalized their election results, so it's still too early for voting experts to describe precisely what went wrong, and how, on Nov. 2. But there are some general points that experts agree on, the most important one of which is that "the system was overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted to use it," according to Doug Chapin, director of the election-reform Web site "We saw this in the long lines, the broken machines, the shortages of printed materials," he says. In very significant ways, the system just fell short.

This wasn't a localized thing. It didn't happen only in swing states like Florida and Ohio. It occurred everywhere across the country. Voters in New York and California reported long lines at the polls. Chapin, who lives in northern Virginia, a state not highly contested in the presidential race, says that he got to his precinct at 5:30 a.m. on Election Day, and he was already the 15th person in line. By the time he'd finished voting, there were 200 people waiting. He'd never seen such a turnout before, he says.

Why did this happen? Why weren't elections officials better prepared to handle the number of voters, especially since pollsters had been reporting intense enthusiasm and excitement over this race and were forecasting a record turnout? Because officials don't have many good guidelines for what to expect and how to plan for what will happen on Election Day, Chapin says. Even worse, some officials don't even care about turnout; many jurisdictions have no laws calling on officials to draw up plans to accommodate higher numbers of voters, and in the jurisdictions that do have rules, the rules are often meaningless. "Some places might have laws that say that you need to have one machine for every 250 voters you expect at the polls," Chapin explains. "But we often don't know if that is based on an actual number -- we don't know if that one machine can actually handle 250 voters."

Indeed, for all the high-minded rhetoric you often hear from politicians regarding the importance of your vote, the American election system is essentially designed "to function well only with low turnout," Rodriguez-Taseff says. In the elections business, a low turnout is not a bad thing -- it's part of the plan. American elections work well only when some of us vote. "The system is intended to be limited," Rodriguez-Taseff says. "If you're an elections official you actually want fewer voters, because if you have fewer voters you need fewer resources. We created a system that has so many barriers to voting that the system functions best when few people vote. And when few people vote, the system functions beautifully."

The problem is more pronounced, Rodriguez-Taseff says, in jurisdictions that use electronic voting machines. "You have incredibly expensive technology, so you cannot possibly buy enough machines for everyone," she notes. This was exactly the problem Miami faced this year. Rodriguez-Taseff points out that her coalition knew at least a month before the election that there could be a shortage of machines at the polls this year. Registration in the county was up, and the local ballot was especially long, causing each machine to be tied up for a longer stretch by each voter. On Oct. 24, the Miami Herald reported these concerns. After monitoring voters at early voting locations, reporters at the paper saw that each machine could handle only about six voters per hour -- only 71 voters per machine on Election Day -- a rate that spelled extremely long wait times. But nothing could be done about the problem, Constance Kaplan, the county's election supervisor, told the paper. "I'm wracking my brain," she said. "I wish I could go out and buy more equipment to make it a better ratio." But of course, Kaplan lacked the time and the money to order more machines by Election Day.

Not all voters are affected equally by the system's flaws. When the American electoral system is overloaded, it's most often the people in low-income and minority neighborhoods who bear the greatest burden. You see this in the way counties allocate voting systems to different precincts. In many voting jurisdictions across the country, the number of machines passed out to each precinct is based on how that precinct voted in the past. This would seem to be a commonsense approach -- neighborhoods with historically high turnout should get more machines, you might think -- but Rodriguez-Taseff explains that the methods used to measure historical turnout are often biased. In Miami, for instance, the county doesn't differentiate between the different ways voters in certain precincts may have cast ballots. If a neighborhood has had a high rate of absentee votes, which is true of wealthier areas, the number of machines given to that neighborhood is not discounted to reflect the fact that many voters there won't be coming to the polls.

"How dumb can they be to allocate the machines without taking into account absentee and early voting?" Rodriguez-Taseff asks. She's right; it does seem pretty dumb. But it's also easy to see how such a thing can happen. People who've never run elections, or haven't done the hard work of reforming elections, often don't realize how daunting these once-every-two-year events are. As a matter of logistics, voting is enormously complex, and sometimes -- indeed, frequently -- stupid decisions slip into the system, and correcting these mistakes is the daily bane of the election reformists like Rodriguez-Taseff.

"I know there are places where such decisions are based on malice," she says -- where few voting machines are given to minority neighborhoods specifically to disenfranchise people in those areas. But in Miami, "this is, frankly, incompetence." The problem slipped into the system because people weren't thinking. Now it's up to reformers like those in Rodriguez-Taseff's group to persuade the county to fix it. The group is up to the task. Every Wednesday for two years, the Miami coalition has been meeting to work on ways to fix problems just like this one, Rodriguez-Taseff notes, adding, "We'll be here two years from now, even when the TV cameras have stopped coming to our meetings," doing the same work. And because fixing these problems is hard work, and because it needs to happen all over the country and not just in Miami, she says that it'd be great if folks elsewhere also directed their energies into reform efforts.

Unfortunately, in the past couple of weeks, while the Internet has been consumed by theories of a stolen election, the efforts of activists like Rodriguez-Taseff and of all the volunteers who manned the polls on Election Day have largely been overlooked. Focusing on the long-term reform of the system is not sexy, Rodriguez-Taseff concedes; it doesn't promise the kind of excitement you get from looking into ways that might overturn Nov. 2's results.

But to the extent that things did go right on Election Day, much of the credit is due to activists who've been fighting to reform our election system for the past few years, says David Dill, the Stanford computer scientist who founded Verified Voting, which calls for paper trails in touch-screen machines. "I think activists, including paper-trail activists, deserve significant credit for this election going more smoothly than it could have," he says. "I'm sure [elections officials] tried harder to make it go more smoothly just because of the attention we focused on this."

Things would have been worse without these reformers, Dill says. "There was a possibility that many counties in Ohio would have bought electronic voting machines. That would have been an utter disaster." (Because of the activists' efforts to derail paperless touch-screen systems, most voters in Ohio instead used punch-card systems, which Dill acknowledges isn't ideal, but "at least they weren't deploying new electronic systems for the first time in this election," he says.) Thanks to the activists' efforts in Nevada this year, people voted on touch-screen machines that were equipped with a paper trail, a system that worked well by most accounts. And in California, voters concerned about the reliability of electronic systems were allowed to cast paper ballots, also thanks to the efforts of reformers. Because of the efforts of thousands of reformers, the election "went much better than it could have," Dill says.

But there's work yet to be done. Just about every sub-system in the machinery of American elections, from the processes used to register voters to those used to count the votes, needs to be improved. In addition, a great deal of analysis and research must be done into how specific parts of the system failed on Nov. 2. For instance, why, exactly, in different places, were the lines so long? Answering this one question will be a difficult task, Chapin says. "One of the things that people will need to figure out is how much of this was caused by extra demand, and how much was caused by not having enough machines, and how much was people being extra careful because they knew the race was close and their votes were going to be more important this time? If you were to write an equation about what was involved in the long lines, you'd see there were a lot of variables there. We need to find out what part each of those variables played."

At this point, it's unclear, too, how many people were disenfranchised by the long lines. Everybody agrees that it's fundamentally unfair that some people were forced to wait in line for hours just to cast a ballot -- but how many people turned away from the polls because of the lines? How many people couldn't find the time to vote because of the lines? Experts aren't yet sure. The most comprehensive numbers on this will likely be released by the U.S. Census Bureau sometime next year. In 2000, according to the bureau, as many as a million votes were "lost" in the United States due to flawed polling-place operations such as long lines. Some experts worry that the problem has not improved, or has become worse, since then.

Only when some of this data comes in can reformers begin earnestly working to fix some of the worst problems we saw on Nov. 2. But over time, as election fever diminishes, will many would-be reformers give up? Will the folks who are so concerned about elections right now because they believe that there's a chance the result might be overturned become less enthusiastic as Bush's win slowly becomes more certain, more impervious to charges of fraud?

The experts who've been working on this issue for years are not counting on a huge groundswell of newfound public support for their work. What if people "can't put their hands on enough 'fraud' to change the results of the presidential election? Does that mean they give up?" Rodriguez-Taseff asks. "Sadly ... I think they do." Chapin, of Electionline, echoes this thought. "My best guess is that something on the order of 98 percent of the people who've been interested in this will now move on to something else," he says. Still, he notes, "the good news is that the people who remain leave the group of people interested in election reform much bigger than it was six months ago. And now that the election is over, there's some good in this being treated as a policy matter, rather than as a purely political matter."

There should have been a big push for comprehensive election reform after the 2000 election in the United States, but that didn't happen. "Other things cut in line -- September 11, gay marriage, the war, you name it," Chapin says. Now, Chapin hopes, election reform will creep back onto the agenda.

Yet it's likely that the only way lawmakers will fix our elections is if citizens press for it -- and only if they press for it constantly, in a nonpartisan manner, as part of a broad effort to remake the way we vote rather than to reverse the results of the last election.

And for all the people who were so passionately involved in that election, what better way to spend the next four years than to dedicate your efforts to remaking our democracy? If you think the American system is broken, if you've felt alienated and abused by recent political affairs, doing the good, honest, hard work of fixing things may feel quite refreshing, activists say. Lockshin, the Berkeley student, offers this testimonial: "Now that I've worked on this with Election Protection, I'm sure I'll be doing it again. I'll be doing it every year, till they stop needing me."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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2004 Elections