The Immortal Chad

After the presidential election fiasco, major voting reform looked like a sure thing in 2001. Maybe this year.
by | January 2002

Even after the November 2000 presidential election illuminated problems with voting across the country, Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell had a funny feeling that election reform wouldn't be a sure thing. He kicked off a state election-reform summit last February by comparing election reform to the fate of wild turkeys slaughtered to near-extinction, voicing fears that ideas for reforming the voting process would be "shot with bullets molded from an unwillingness to change."

And that's pretty much the way things turned out in Ohio. Blackwell spent much of 2001 fighting a bitter losing battle with fellow Republicans over the fate of the punch cards used by 74 percent of the state's voters. He chaired an election-reform commission that turned petty and contentious, eventually releasing a report that, over his objections, recommended keeping the punch cards.

Although most states have not experienced quite the degree of public rancor as Ohio has, they have ended up with a similar result: the status quo, more or less. Not only will this November's elections feature plenty of punch cards, but some states and localities have decided that chad isn't so bad after all. And even though the passage of federal election reforms now being debated should spur a flurry of state activity, it won't have much of an effect on how people vote this year.

Not that states have done absolutely nothing since the 2000 elections. State legislatures saw almost 1,800 bills introduced in 2001, and enacted about 250 of them. But only in Florida, Georgia and Maryland did those bills produce comprehensive reforms. Florida, in particular, approved an omnibus reform bill that establishes a centralized voter database, funds voter and poll-worker education, and spells out standards for recounts and votes. The reform bill also decertifies punch cards as of this September and provides $24 million to counties that still use punch cards, lever machines or paper ballots. Maryland and Georgia both enacted legislation mandating uniform statewide voting systems, along with other reforms.

Other states passed patchwork election-reform legislation. North Carolina, Indiana and Texas enacted measures phasing out punch cards, and California Secretary of State Bill Jones decertified them. In addition, states passed a variety of lesser bills, including measures lengthening recount periods, centralizing voter registration and training poll workers. Scattered counties also went ahead on their own and replaced their voting systems without state help.

But those isolated changes don't add up to much on a nationwide scale. "Little has changed, it appears, despite an apparent groundswell following November 2000 in favor of immediate action on 'election reform,'" says a report from the nonprofit Election Reform Information Project, supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts and based at the University of Richmond.

There are several reasons why more states did not capitalize on the problems with the 2000 election and pass substantive reforms last year. Many were waiting on the outcomes of national and state election commissions; by the time these reports were done, some legislative sessions had already ended for the year. Other states were waiting for Congress to pass its election-reform legislation, so they could see how much federal money would be available. And others didn't change their election systems for the same reasons that they hadn't changed them before November 2000: They didn't think they needed fixing.

But as 2002 begins and legislative sessions start up again, there is good reason to believe that states will pass more substantive legislation than they did last year. The major commissions have released their reports, states have a model to follow in Florida's actions, and federal legislation seems imminent. Although states have less money this January than last, many important election reforms don't cost very much. Straightening out recount and vote standards can be done practically for free, and other reforms, such as centralizing voter-registration databases, training poll workers and educating voters, cost only a few million dollars. Provisional voting--enabling voters who say they are registered but are not listed on the rolls to cast a ballot at the polling place and determining their eligibility later--is another important reform that can be done cheaply. "There are lots of things that states and localities can do independent of a multimillion-dollar investment in new machines," says Doug Chapin, director of the Election Reform Information Project.

What's left then is the most controversial part of election reform: how people vote. Changing voting systems is contentious mainly because it is expensive. For the state of Ohio to switch its 69 punch-card counties to optical-scan machines would cost at least $60 million, plus substantial future paper costs. Switching to more modern electronic machines could cost $400 million. With an ever-increasing number of states in financial crisis, new voting machines are hardly a priority.

Federal legislation could change that--to some degree. In December, the U.S. House passed a bipartisan compromise bill sponsored by Representatives Bob Ney of Ohio and Steny Hoyer of Maryland. One day later, the U.S. Senate agreed on a bipartisan compromise of its own. That bill is based on one sponsored by Connecticut's Chris Dodd that started off in a very partisan fashion, passing the Rules Committee in August in a vote boycotted by every Republican. The Senate bill allots $3.4 billion over five years, and mandates that states follow specific steps to meet "minimal national requirements." Those requirements include provisional voting, statewide voter registration and disability-access standards. In a concession to Republicans concerned about voter fraud, the bill also requires absentee voters to show identification the first time they vote.

The House bill also requires states to meet minimum standards concerning provisional voting, registration databases and disabled voters. But the House bill leaves it up to the states to determine exactly how those requirements must be satisfied. The House bill also authorizes less money--$2.25 billion over three years as the 75 percent portion of federal matching funds.

The bills also differ in their approach to punch cards. While senators insist that they will not tell states what equipment to use, the House has made modernizing voting machines a priority. The House bill authorizes an additional $400 million in 90/10 matching funds specifically to update voting machines. The bill prioritizes eliminating punch cards, allotting $6,000 per precinct for counties with punch cards and $2,000 per precinct for those using lever machines, paper ballots or old electronic machines.

If the $400 million buyout is included in eventual compromise legislation, it would put a large dent into election-reform financing, but would not cover the whole cost. Although $6,000 per precinct may be able to cover most of the cost of an optical scanner, counties would still have to pay for expensive paper year after year. And the money would probably cover only a fraction of the cost of a switch to electronic voting machines. This is because only one optical scanner is required per precinct, compared with multiple electronic machines. Some states are already planning to kick in supplemental money to help counties. In California, a $200 million bond issue will be on the ballot in March to pay for election-reform costs.

The House bill also specifies that federal money will be available only if counties switch by 2002, or provide a good reason why they need until 2004. Experts predict that many counties will be forced to choose the latter option, simply because time is running out. Election officials say that it takes a minimum of six months to pick and install an election system, with nine months being a more realistic number. "Even if this moves through and we get legislation passed in 2002, you're left with only a few months," says Ralph Tabor, a lobbyist for the National Association of Counties. For some counties, even changing by 2004 may be a stretch. Conny McCormack, register- recorder and county clerk of Los Angeles County, cautions against making a large investment in a system that might not contain the best technology. "We don't want to be saddled with inferior equipment," she says. "It's not dragging your feet to want to do it correctly."

In the unlikely event that a large number of counties felt they were in a position to upgrade voting technology by this November, election experts doubt that the voting-technology industry would be able to meet the demand. "There aren't that many companies, and there isn't that much of an inventory," says Chapin. "It's not like there are warehouses of election machines. They are built largely to spec."

For other states and counties, punch cards are less of a financial concern and more of a philosophical one. Punch-card defenders say that they are no worse than any other form of voting, and that what makes or breaks a voting system is its human components, such as voter education and poll worker training. The idea that punch cards are not inherently evil is clearly expressed in the report produced by the Ohio election-reform commission. "As with any system, punch cards have both advantages and disadvantages to their use," the report says. "Nothing could ever fully take the place of voter responsibility in the voting process. Elections will never be completely free of mistakes."

Election officials also contend that many of the mechanical problems with punch cards are less of a concern than they once were, since the public is now intimately acquainted with them. "People have had a great education about the importance of dislodging the chad," says Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburg, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Others who defend punch cards see them as a control issue. Many counties fiercely defend the precedent of local control in elections and do not want the state telling them how to vote. In Ohio's Logan County, officials felt secure enough about their punch-card system that they bought 40 of Florida's surplus punch-card machines. In Kentucky, when Secretary of State John Brown tried to upgrade the state's eight remaining counties that vote by lever machine, he encountered more resistance from the counties than from the legislature. "A lot of the counties that have the older equipment have been using it for over 30 years," he says. "They say they've never had a problem, and they don't want to change now."

Those who oppose punch cards believe that there definitely is a problem. In addition to the mechanical difficulties inherent in punch cards, they view them as a symbol of what went wrong in the 2000 presidential elections. If voting is the cornerstone of democracy, punch-card opponents believe that the machines short-circuit good government. "We don't send our servicemen to defend our country on cheap airplanes with cheap weapons," Blackwell says. "It's foolish to think that we can run a democracy on the cheap."

In Ohio, Blackwell was not content to simply accept the election- reform commission's report advocating the status quo. He released a minority opinion to the report, noting that the commission split 6-5 on the question of punch cards. He has also released a seven-minute "voter education" video showing the complications involved in voting by punch cards. And he is confident that when federal money does become available, the legislature will rethink its opposition to changing its voting systems. "Once the money is in play, I think there will be change of heart in the legislature," Blackwell says. "There are some stingy people there, but they're not idiots."

Once that money does come through, punch-card counties will have to decide what machine they want to switch to: optical scan or ATM-style electronic machines. At this point, it appears that for most of the country, the choice will be made on the county level, rather than statewide. Although Maryland and Georgia both switched to statewide systems soon after the November 2000 election, that option has fallen somewhat out of favor since. "Right after the elections, there was a mass public sentiment that everyone should use the same machines," says Chapin. "That has cooled."

Because so few places have switched thus far, it is difficult to predict what counties will choose. Most of the punch-card counties in Florida are switching to electronic machines, but they have been relatively well funded from the state. Elsewhere, counties that will depend solely on federal buyout funds may choose optical-scan machines instead, since they require a much lower initial investment.

Another option that has developed since the November 2000 elections is for counties to use mixed systems. Some, such as Harris County in Texas, are combining the cost-effectiveness of optical-scan machines with the accessibility to the disabled of electronic machines. In Virginia, the legislature passed a law allowing counties to use a mix of systems.

Another hybrid that will gain in popularity is "second-chance" punch- card voting. Even if counties cannot afford to replace their punch- card systems, they may be able to afford a device that will alert voters if a ballot has been punched improperly; if undervotes or overvotes register on the card, voters will be able to fully punch the hole or request a new ballot. In his minority opinion, Ohio's Blackwell recommended that all voting equipment in the state be equipped with a second-chance component--a measure also required by Dodd's federal election-reform bill. In Cook County, Illinois, the state Democratic Party recently won a lawsuit to allow second-chance voting. Although County Clerk David Orr freely admits that second- chance punch-card voting is not a perfect system, he predicts that it will drastically reduce the error rate while the county waits to switch to electronic voting. "It's a transition to a better technology," he says.

In Cook County and the rest of the country, that transition may not come by 2002. It may not even come by 2004. But it will almost certainly come at some point. Before federal legislation was revived a few months ago, it appeared that election reform had nearly petered out entirely--a casualty of worsening state economies, lack of interest and increased anti-terrorism spending. "After September 11, election reform was really put on the back burner," says Kentucky's Brown. "I had sort of given up hope."

And while the House reform proposal does not please everyone-- particularly civil rights groups looking for more rigid enforcement-- its infusion of cash would provide the first real opportunity for widespread, large-scale reforms. For state election officials, who spent most of 2001 utterly frustrated with the slow pace of reform, the revival of the federal reform proposals is a godsend. "It feels so good," says Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury. "We've returned to the recognition that there's a real problem."

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Anya Sostek | Former Correspondent | asostek@gmail.com