Re-inventing How America Votes — Now More Relevant Than Ever

In a previous post, I noted two things we’ve learned from this election. The first (and subject of that post) is to what extent the Internet has changed the way elections are conducted. The second, and the focus here, is to what extent the election taught us anything about the need to re-invent HOW America votes.

In the past two days, I’ve been asked several times whether the election, as it turned out, reduces the importance of our Project or not. Seriously.

This election has done nothing but fortify our need to press forward in re-inventing the foundation of technology on which America increasingly relies to cast, count, and verify votes in a digital age.

Let me start by reminding us of an important — perhaps the most important — statement in President-Elect Obama’s victory address:

"This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were."
— President-elect Barack Obama

I believe this is a battle cry for our advancing the cause of the OSDV Project. But let me offer some more fodder.

Our great democracy can no longer afford to ask its busy citizens — who are working hard for their living — to wait hours in line to cast their ballots. Yet, our current systems ask us to do precisely that. Some would argue that it is our civic duty. After all, comparatively, there are countries who compel voting by law — perhaps because their struggle to win democracy in the first place is still a poignant memory.

But I digress. Waiting hours in line, battling for legitimacy in the face of an errant voter roll print out, and wrangling with archaic or obsolete machinery or ballot casting processes should not be summarily waved off as civic duty.

I’d rather see election day become a national holiday following a weekend, with fast, reliable, secure, and verifiable processes in place for casting our ballot. Then the time could be used to really perform our real civic duty: to make informed choices by studing the issues, reviewing the choices, participating in the national or local discourse, and reflecting on the importance of this cherished right.

So what of this just completed ’08 election in terms of irregularities, technical difficulties, or other potential problems? Here are five that I tracked, heard or read about, and have been reported elsewhere.

1. Unequally Equal Access.
Cross-town treks from work to polling places on lost time from work to wait hours in line. Civic duty or not, this is caused by our balkanized national network of voting systems which differ from state to state (and sometimes more granular than that), does not present an level playing field. Some precincts offer more polling places, more machines, longer voting hours and/or more citizen-friendly practices and procedures than others. To be sure, it can be argued that when a single working parent must wait for hours in line, while in a different precinct or state, the other parent does not, this is not an inconvenience or mere civic duty. I
n many cases, that wait is impractical or impossible. Therefore, such is a disenfranchisment at least and at most, an outright barrier to voting.

2. Even When Things Go Right, They Can Go Wrong.
Reports filed in all night about challenges at the polling places resulting in provisional ballots (that are often cast out), or worse, people turned away. Even people who are properly registered and ready to cast their ballot can run into problems. We recently moved within our county and I ended up receiving two ballots (we vote by mail in Oregon). (By contrast, my wife finally re-registered from CA to OR after we consolidated residences and sold our SFO home this year, and things went smoothly.) These problems are probably a technology issue. Election boards can and should have Computers, PCs, or online access at all polling places so that poll workers can immediately verify registrants. While there are reasonable arguments against technology (that are curable), the question remains: in a digital age, with all that is available, why shouldn’t precincts take at least the minimum steps to avail themselves of the necessary information tools and data to dynamically authenticate, verify, and authorize a registrant to cast their ballot?

3. Welcome to Machine.
And there were reports of machine troubles, though not widespread as predicted. When voters actually clear the initial hurdles and find themself face-to-interface, it appears that they can lose their votes in machines that, for reasons of malfeasance or negligence, do not function properly. And so I tweeted most of the afternoon and into the night (@OSDV) about scattered reports of machine breakdowns. For instance, there were soggy ballots in Virginia that had to be dried before they could be counted. And yes, there were some reports of machine vote flipping in early access voting.

4. Poll Intimidation.
Believe it: there are still patterns of intimidation at the polls. In Indiana a Court ruled that Republican poll monitors had violated a court order about the legal process for challenging voters. In Wisconsin, the attorney general dispatched special agents to the polls in order to “monitor” voter fraud, after having lost a lawsuit to make it easier to challenge voter registrations.

5. The Count is Often Not the Count.
Counting processes seldom produce accurate results on Election Night, that as we know from history, can cause a mistaken call. And this past Tuesday, in many states, such as Pennsylvania, officials planned to delay — potentially for days — the counting of “emergency” or “provisional” ballots. Although Pennsylvania was called for Obama, such delays warp the finish picture, and arguably deny us of a real view of the situation. But it seems to me this doesn’t have to be the situation.

I understand that election processes are best left to the individual states to administer. I will not go down that rat hole of whether that should be the case. But wherein an election contains a federal contest, some consistency seems reasonable.

The fact is, there is no baseline standards for organizing and administering a federal election. The result: different states have different rules; in some cases, rules differ within a state by county and sometimes even within counties by precinct. And yet, increasingly, the need for accuracy is critical to the outcome.

Simply put, notwithstanding the outcome this week, our system of elections is dysfunctional.

If we are the leading role model of democracy to the world — a society as advanced as the United States is — why shouldn’t our systems for elections be equally advanced with highly reliable, accountable, consistent and trustworthy methods and means?

If this is the window of opportunity to bring about change, and such cannot happen if we allow things to remain as they are, or worse, return to as they were, then now is the time to address the cornerstone of our democracy — HOW we vote. Yes, we can.

It is time to transform our system of elections into one that is truly democratic; truly reliable; truly trustworthy. Yes, we can.


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