Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Fundamental Problem with the American Elections System

Yesterday, I got quite wordy and noted that I would follow-up with a discussion about the more fundamental problem with our voting system here. Well, I actually decided to make that post on Samvaad, the blog for the non-profit who's board I'm on. You can read the full text of that posting here.

I've condensed that post slightly for this blog:
Whatever one's opinion is on the Supreme Court decision, the fact that such a controversy erupted highlights a much more fundamental problem in the way that federal elections are conducted in the United States. The reality is voting in the United States is that basically the only thing which the federal government guarantees is that every citizen over the age of 18 has the right to vote (except for a few exceptions such as for felons). Other aspects of voting is left up to the individual states and counties. This had not really been a national issue before the 2000 election, but since then, this has become an increasingly worrying situation.

We're not talking about voter intimidation or illegal tactics (although those are a concern, they can be addressed through better enforcement of existing laws). The worrying situation is that in federal elections such as those for President or Congress, the federal government doesn't require any minimum "quality" for polling locations or for the process which states and counties use to run elections and count votes.

What this means is that there are various ways in which people submit their votes - the traditional paper ballots, optical scanning machines where tick marks are read by scanner, and the new touch screen machines are just a few examples. There is certainly controversy around the touch screen machines because, depending on the type of machine, there is no receipt or secondary method to confirm the vote. This is one area of where it would make sense for the Federal Elections Commission to weigh in with standard for the types of voting machines which can be used in federal elections and the ways in which elections officials should maintain these machines to ensure proper functioning. Unfortunately, the FEC only seems to concern itself over campaign financing.

If you've read deep into the NY Times article linkd to above, you'll notice that the actual court case brought before the Supreme Court was regarding the recounting of questionable ballots. The decision made was based partly on the ability of Florida election officials to recount ballots quickly enough with certainty. This highlights another area of grave concern over the American elections process. There is no federal standard for counting or recounting ballots in the case on controversy, mistakes, or questions. Each state has different standards on when a recount should be conducted - many require a recount when the vote is within 1/2%, but it varies.¶So after the controversy around the 2000 election, one would expect the federal government to weigh in on this and publish standards for counting and recounting ballots in federal elections. Again, this would be perfect for the FEC to pick up, but again, they do not oversee this area.

There are certainly other areas of concern with the process of voting in the United States. This piece has only touched upon some procedural areas, but there are many more issues around enforcement of elegibility rules, voter intimidation, and access to polling locations. All of these issues concern us about the quality of the elections process here. One can cynically question the legitimacy of President Bush's term because of problems in Florida, but safe to say that these issues were not in the public's eye then. In the four years since then, Florida has made strides to improve upon their elections process, but why not the federal government?

For the elections coming on November 2nd, it would not be surprising if various lawsuits are brought on the grounds of procedural errors. If the campaigns are ready to pursue these issues in a court of law, why isn't the federal government doing anything to discount the need for such lawsuits. Any time a material change in the results of an election could occur on the basis of these procedural failures and subsequent lawsuits, one has to wonder why there is not a larger uproar. Until there are federal standards for the election of federal officials, the legitimacy of every winner could be questioned.

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