Democracy and Elections  
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More Unfinished 2008 Election Business: Verifiable Vote Counts

The ongoing Senate races in Minnesota and Georgia highlight America's disparate systems of voting and auditing the count.
 
 
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Whether Democrats hold a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate -- cementing their political power as Barack Obama becomes the 44th president -- will be decided in early December as Minnesota finishes a senate recount and Georgia holds a run-off election.

But the nation will be seeing more than whether Minnesota Democrat Al Franken beats Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman to become the 59th Democratic senator, and whether Georgia Democrat Jim Martin beats Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, possibly putting a 60th senate seat in Democratic hands.

The country will also see a stunning contrast between two of the most commonly used voting systems in America -- hand-marked paper ballots in Minnesota versus paperless electronic voting in Georgia -- and that contrast, between an ability or lack thereof to verify vote counts, will highlight the need for additional federal election reforms.

"Imagine if Franken wins in Minnesota by several hundred votes after all the ballots are sorted out, and Martin loses in Virginia by the roughly the same number of votes in a process that is completely opaque," was how one voting rights expert put this week.

Every presidential election since 2000 has prompted calls for reforming the process. In late 2008, the emerging election reform agenda will not be written until this year's final federal contests and most visible vote counts are completed.

Already, many voting rights advocates have concluded that the simplest solution to the problems already seen in 2008 is "universal voter registration," where the government would pro-actively ensure eligible citizens are registered, including the safeguard of allowing people to register and to vote on Election Day.

Universal voter registration is seen by many advocates as the best solution to 2008's most controversial and litigious election issues, such as millions of registration records where voter's information did not match other government databases, and problems caused by third-party voter registration drives that submitted error-filled voter applications.

But fixing registration-related issues only addresses part of the process -- the intake and processing of the electorate. Election reforms also need to look at accommodating voters, so there are not long lines at polling places. Equally important is the still-neglected part of the process that concerns voting itself and accuracy of the vote count.

This final stage of the process is vividly on display in Minnesota as officials review every paper ballot, and will soon be on display in Georgia where election officials will not have that option because their voting systems leave no paper trail or independent record that can be used to discern voter intent or to verify the count.

The recount process in Minnesota is everything that the upcoming runoff in Georgia will not be: transparent and verifiable. In Minnesota, every voter marks a paper ballot, which is then counted on Election Night by computer scanners. The scanners are not error-free, but officials, as is now the case during the recount, can examine every ballot to discern the voter's intent -- which is as clear as their ink marks.

Lawyers for the Franken and Coleman campaigns may posture in the press about sloppy ballots, but there is little doubt that the Minnesota recount has integrity and voters will accept the final outcome. In Georgia, in contrast, there is no corollary. It is one of six states where all voters use paperless computers with no means of auditing the vote.

As the news unfolds about the next senate's make up, look beyond the headlines to the process in Minnesota and Georgia. Wherever there is a lack of integrity, there is a need for reform.