Not Again! How Our Voting System Is Ripe For Theft and Meltdown in 2012
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In the recount that followed Minnesota’s 2008 U.S. Senate race, one in 25 mail-in ballots were disqualified, Persily noted. “This error rate is more than triple the intolerable error rates Florida experienced with its punch card ballots in 2000. Political scientist Charles Stewart of MIT estimates that in the 2008 election 'four-million ballots were requested but not received… and 800,000 ballots were returned for counting but rejected.’”
Persily has an informed viewpoint. However, there are other expert analyses that are equally informed and troubling. What’s striking about 2012 is how many different trends are not boding well—and could be of a magnitude affecting millions of votes.
Most Visible: Partisan Voter Suppression
The most publicized problems have come from the partisan frontlines. Since last year, nearly a dozen GOP-led states have adopted more restrictive voter ID laws, in addition to curbs on registration drives. Some laws have been blocked in court (i.e., Wisconsin’s voter ID, Florida’s voter drives) and others are being challenged by the Justice Department. (The Texas voter ID case is in court this week, which prompted Holder’s comparison of that law to a “poll tax” before the NAACP). But many new laws and related efforts are still in play. In Mississippi, for example, the Justice Department has yet to approve or reject its stricter voter ID law.
In recent weeks, the state-by-state impact has become clearer as the details of how these efforts would work have emerged. In Florida, that state’s Tea Party governor, Rick Scott, is involved in a nasty legal fight with the DOJ over purging what he claims may be 180,000 non-citizens from his state’s voter rolls.
That fight is now in court, although one under-reported fact is that Florida’s county election supervisors, who run Florida’s elections, have not jumped at Scott’s order to purge their lists. They don’t want another debacle on par with 2000 on their watch, which is laudable. But Florida also has some of the worst recount laws in the country—another consequence of not wanting to be the poster child of election failures. In Florida, the county results have to be certified before a recount can occur, and that can only happen after a court order. That upside-down legal backdrop initially concealed a big error by computer scanners counting ballots in Palm Beach County in March, where an audit a week later revealed that in two local contests the wrong winner had been declared.
In Pennsylvania, the situation is potentially more troubling. The GOP-controlled Legislature passed a tough new voter ID law that state officials now say could disenfranchise 750,000 people, more than 9 percent of its registered voters. That state’s Republican House leader was caught on camera bragging that the ID law would “win the state” for Romney. Despite fierce criticism, it appears the state’s Republicans are not retreating, and nearly a quarter of the people lacking a state driver’s license—the most common photo ID—live in Philadelphia, that state’s traditional Democratic stronghold.
The Brennan Center at NYU Law School last year projected that the cumulative national impact of new voter suppression laws could reach 5 million voters. Persily’s absentee ballot projections could also involve large numbers of rejected ballots. And so too could the machine problems highlighted by Simons and Pamela Smith of the Verified Voting Foundation, whose Web site tracks America’s voting systems county by county.
“A number of states are limping along with technology that is a decade old and really showing signs of wear,” Smith said.
Across the country, two families of voting technologies were adopted as a response to Florida’s computer punch card debacle in 2000. About one-quarter of the country uses all-electronic voting systems with no paper record or audit trail—just computer memory. The rest of the country tends to use hybrid systems where people mark a paper ballot with a pen and those ballots are run through high-speed computer scanners to be counted.