Machine Politics

Technology alone won't fix what's wrong with our voting procedures.
by | February 2006

Faced with a $1.3 million bill for buying backup equipment for its electronic voting machines, Snohomish County, Washington, took a radical step. Instead of digging even deeper into new technology, it gave up. From here on, Snohomish decided, its voters would cast ballots only by mail.

Counties all over the country are facing similar dilemmas. Federal and state mandates are driving them to undertake massive updates of local voting machinery in the effort to avoid another crisis of hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads. For Snohomish, located near Seattle, the mandate would have meant a big one-time investment to back up the electronic machines, followed by $650,000 in annual maintenance costs. Since only about a third of the county's registered voters were using voting booths anyway, the county council saw little sense in making the investment. The new wrinkle in voting technology in Snohomish will be the mailbox.

There are all sorts of obstacles on the road to more efficient voting. New electronic machines often leave no paper trail to audit the votes. Older devices often break, and finding spare parts sometimes means cannibalizing other machines. The decisions about which way to go are fueling partisan conflict, with Democrats making the case for easier voting and Republicans citing fraud.

James Fallows argues that the biggest technological issue for 2006 is "whether America's electoral system will become more trustworthy, or less, as it becomes more computerized."

Last fall, a 21-member commission headed by Jimmy Carter and James A. Baker III issued an extensive report on the whole problem. "Americans are losing confidence in the fairness of elections," the report concluded. In an op-ed, Carter and Baker wrote that "the American people want the system fixed before the next election."

But behind the techno-debate are problems that have little to do with technology. A massive analysis of voters who called in to a national hotline during the 2004 election revealed a simple fact: The main reason most people don't vote is that they don't know whether they're registered or where to go to cast ballots.

The survey, MyVote1, was conducted by the CEO of InfoVoter Technologies, Ken Smukler, and by my colleague at the Fels Institute of Government, Christopher Patusky. They created a toll-free hotline that voters could call with their complaints. The system received substantial national publicity on the days running up to the election, and on Election Day, it logged more than 208,000 phone calls.

Half of those calling in simply wanted to find the right polling place. The hotline had a sophisticated system to relay these complaints to local election boards. But Smukler and Patusky found that 47 percent of the calls relayed to local election board hotlines simply went unanswered.

Numbers such as those suggest that the massive investment in new voting technology might actually be solving the wrong problem. "In America," says Smukler, "we have made it easier to find a Chinese vegetarian restaurant than to find your poll location on Election Day." And the most sophisticated machines in the world won't take care of that. There is one form of technology that might help: a Web-based voting-booth finder service. But it's hard to get that sort of service anywhere in the country.

Snohomish County has stumbled onto the right problem. Our democracy depends on voters who vote. Proponents of better democracy argue the case for making the whole process easier and more trustworthy, and they're right to make that argument.

But if we get hung up on the technology, we're likely to miss the more important issue. Our voting system makes it hard to find the voting booth. That gives a big advantage to people who live in the same place for years and get used to voting in the same school or firehouse. Those who move often or who have more fragile roots in their community are more likely to be disenfranchised.

So our failure to solve the right problem--the most basic administrative issues of election management--is making a huge difference in whose voice is heard on Election Day.