When Machines Pick Our Presidents

More than a century ago, New York City party boss William "Boss" Tweed was infamous for using fraud to win elections. Popular legend also has it that President John Kennedy may have won his election via fraud, courtesy of the Daley political machine in Chicago. But the 2000 presidential election raises a whole new specter: electoral upset resulting from voting machine screw ups.

What if Al Gore really had more support from Florida voters than George W. Bush? But due to voting equipment failure and well-meaning human error enough votes were swiped from Gore's tally to overturn the election? Indeed, a precinct by precinct analysis conducted by the Miami Herald concluded just that, saying that in a less error-prone election Florida likely would have gone to Al Gore by as many as 23,000 votes.

This may be the first presidential election that will result in, not victory by fraud, but victory by, what shall we call it -- malfunction?

Without a doubt, the antiquated punch-card voting machines used to count votes in many Florida counties are prone to errors and irregularities. Even a Republican witness in one of the Florida court cases -- a designer of the disputed punch-card machines - admitted to the court that the devices malfunction and fail to record votes. This witness also testified that a hand count would be necessary in "very close elections."

Specifically, in Miami-Dade County, the punch-card machines failed to count nearly 10,000 ballots because the machines could not ascertain a vote for president. These orphaned ballots still are sitting in a pile somewhere, uncounted.

Those ballots alone may be enough to tip the election in a race as close as this one. If they ever get counted. Now add to that the poorly designed butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County that did not conform to Florida's legal specifications regarding the design of ballots, and apparently confused thousands of voters. A typical election has a spoiled ballot rate of about 1 percent of ballots. In Palm Beach, the spoiled ballot rate was over four times that number, more than 20,000 ballots were thrown out. So clearly something was amiss there as well.

These are just two of the many voting machine snafus and irregularities that, because the race was so close, acquired blockbuster proportions. Thousands of voters - 185,000, to be exact, 335 times Bush's margin -- have had their legal vote tossed aside due to the vagaries of outdated voting technology compounded by official decisions. But the quagmire gets deeper.

A recent precinct by precinct analysis by the Washington Post revealed that the Florida counties and precincts most affected were poor and minority. Heavily African American neighborhoods in Florida lost many more presidential votes than other areas because of outmoded voting machines and rampant confusion about ballots

Up to one in three ballots in black sections of Jacksonville, for example, did not count in the presidential contest. That was four times as many as in white precincts elsewhere in mostly Republican Duval County. A ballot that perplexingly spread presidential names over two pages led to many accidental double votes, which are automatically voided.

The Post reported that senior GOP strategists say privately that a key reason the Bush campaign did not ask for a statewide recount was it feared that Gore would pick up more votes than Bush, because of the high rate of ballot spoilage in black precincts.

Examining all the evidence, the picture that emerges is that voting irregularities and antiquated voting machines that disenfranchised thousands of minority voters is probably determining our next president. If we allow such a slipshod process for the highest office in the land, what kind of standard does that establish for future elections, especially at lower levels?

And how will that look to the rest of the world, to whom the United States has upheld the ideal that elections should be decided on democratic principles like fairness, the secret ballot and the "highest vote getter wins." What shall we say now -- "except when the voting machines mess up?"

However this election is eventually settled, the American public and politicians should speak as one voice to say: "Never again." Never again will we allow malfunctioning voting machines and poorly designed ballots to determine who wins our elections.

The new president and Congress need to step up to the plate and enact national standards for modernizing our elections infrastructure. That includes voting machines, ballot designs, procedures for recounts and other details of elections. And those counties too poor to foot the bill should receive federal assistance.

No cost is too great to make sure that every vote counts, and that every vote gets counted. As this presidential election has shown, a vote can be a terrible thing to waste.

Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is co-author of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press, 1999).


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