Technology: Counting Votes

Hanging chads haven't made an appearance so far, but Florida's next-door neighbor Georgia seemed to encounter a few problems of its own during the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses. In addition to hourlong waits to vote reported early in the day, local radio station WMGT is now reporting that Obama officials have asked Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel to investigate complaints that elderly people in Atlanta received  calls offering to allow them to vote by phone—which is not in fact possible. Where do states stand on safeguarding against voting irregularities? NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul spoke with Doug Chapin, director of Pew's, a project developed in response to the 2000 election controversies, which currently has two dozen people stationed in various states to monitor the process. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How are the elections going so far?
Doug Chapin:
We haven't had anything really big come up. We're seeing the sorts of things we've come to expect in elections like this. It seems like every election we have a prominent elected official who has trouble casting a ballot, and this year that award goes to [Gov.] Jon Corzine in New Jersey, where the machines weren't working [as reported at time of publication; according to an elections official, human error, not technology, was the culprit]. What we've seen more of this time—and for now it appears isolated, but we'll have to wait a few more days to see if it really was—is problems with these new computerized poll books, checking in with a laptop rather than the good old green-and-white computer paper. There are a couple places that have had problems with that. We've had reports from Georgia, some from Illinois, and elsewhere. Also there are the scattered breakdowns, problems getting started, polls that can't open because the door is locked, that sort of thing. Now, at least, we're not seeing the kind of statewide snafu that puts one or more states in doubt. There has also been a tremendous uptick in the number of absentee and early votes, and it stands to reason that all those people not standing in line makes everything go a lot more smoothly on Election Day.

Are there any hot spots that you're watching closely?
One state that we're watching is Georgia, which is using its photo ID requirement for the first time in a federal election. I haven't yet seen any reports, except some about long lines, and it's not clear if that has to do with photo ID or if it's to do with these electronic poll books not working well or not starting properly. We're also watching Arizona, which also has an ID requirement. I haven't seen or heard any real problems on that. Finally, we're watching all the states that are using technology, either new or newish. Besides some electronic poll book breakdowns, we haven't seen anything concentrated so much that there's any kind of statewide problem.

So are these ID requirements hurting or helping?
It's a concern about fraud versus a concern about access to the polls. It'll be important in places like Georgia and Indiana, which also has a photo ID requirement, to see whether or not the fear that lots of people will be turned away actually comes to fruition. A colleague in Savannah says she hasn't seen anybody have a problem producing an ID to cast a ballot. I haven't yet seen any reports out of Georgia of a problem. If that bears out, it will certainly bolster those who support voter ID, because they'll be able to say that it doesn't have any impact on turnout. The flip side is that, potentially, the people who didn't have ID simply didn't bother to go to vote. So it won't settle the argument, but at least this will give us a little more data. There isn't a lot of data. Both sides in the photo ID debate have spent more time knocking down each other's arguments than advancing their own.

Are there any states that get gold stars on elections?
Connecticut transitioned to new voting technology and spent lots of time preparing its voters for switchover. So I think the fact that you don't hear a lot about problems there says a lot about preparation. Until today I hadn't heard of many problems out of Georgia. Georgia has a relationship with a local university that helps them set up the machines, design the ballots and train people to use them. I don't know if the scattered problems we're seeing today are just bad luck or if something else is going on. The states like Georgia and Connecticut that have invested time in preparing not just their voters but their poll workers and elections officials for new technology are the ones that tend to avoid the headlines you see on and after Election Day.

Is there anything new or unusual about this election?
The big thing in this election is that we're seeing in many states—Florida, California, Ohio, Colorado and others—a retreat from electronic voting on both sides of the aisle. You've got a Republican governor in Florida, Democratic secretaries of state in California and Ohio, and a Republican secretary of state in Colorado, all of whom have raised concerns about electronic voting and have either moved their states wholesale to paper-based balloting, as Florida has, or proposed that the state consider going to more paper balloting, as in Ohio. The big story in 2008 is the emergence of a buyer's market. Almost eight years after the presidential election in 2000 and more than five years after Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, we still have a tremendous amount of uncertainty about what technology we want to use to cast ballots.

Which is more common: human error or technological error?
More often than not we hear about human errors. The most important moving part in an election is the voter him- or herself. Given the number of voters involved, we'll have problems with voting every now and then. But also jurisdictions are now struggling to assimilate this new technology into the election process, so I don't want to put the problem entirely on human error. And there's no one technology that's better than any others. Each technology has own strengths and weaknesses. For all the criticism of electronic voting, it does avoid some of the problems associated with paper. You don't have hanging chads or questions of voter intent with an electronic ballot, or people spoiling their ballots with stray marks or choosing too many candidates. You can also be more flexible for voters with disabilities or alternate language needs. But with paper ballots you get a permanent record that might not be available with a touchscreen. In many states we're in a discussion about how it isn't so much about choosing the best theoretical voting system but about choosing the best fit for a jurisdiction's demand and price point. Right now the move toward paper mirrors the move toward electronic voting we saw four or five years ago. We don't know yet if it's the right technology or just the technology we're using right now.

What's the biggest challenge for you in analyzing elections?
Just keeping track of it all. There are so many systems out there. The two things that every jurisdiction in America has in common is that they like the way they do their elections and they can't believe anybody else would do it any differently.

What can voters look out for as they participate in the election process?
Something we're seeing more and more in the field is a focus on the individual voter. Voters can expect better efforts to give them information about where to vote and what's on the ballot. You're going to see jurisdictions looking into Election Day voting centers, where anybody can go anywhere in their jurisdiction to vote, as opposed to the traditional polling place. You'll also see them investigating increased absentee voting or voting by mail. The traditional model of going to the polling place, standing in line, and casting your vote may not be the way we cast our votes in the foreseeable future.