Campus & Community

Dimpled chads, butterfly ballots take center stage

5 min read

With much of the nation’s attention still focused on the mysteries of the “dimpled” chad and the passionate dispute over butterfly ballots in Florida, five players in the U.S. election process presented their ideas for fixing the troubled system during a panel discussion Tuesday night at the ARCO Forum of Public Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG).

No single solution emerged from the discussion, although the panelists seemed to agree that some changes should be made at the state and local level to ensure that the confusion that emerged from last month’s presidential election does not happen again.

The panelists included R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center in Houston, Texas; Trevor Potter, former head of the Federal Election Committee; Arkansas Secretary of State Sharon Priest; Richard Soudriette, president of the International Foundation for Election Systems; and Donald W. Tighe, director of David C. King, KSG assistant professor in public policy, moderated the discussion.

“The election process in Florida has exposed problems throughout the country,” King told the audience. “Elections are run at the local level, not at the national level, and there’s great concern about the integrity of the voting system.”

“The election process in Florida has exposed problems throughout the country. Elections are run at the local level, not at the national level, and there’s great concern about the integrity of the voting system.”

David C. King, KSG assistant professor in public policy

King made reference to controversial punch card ballots, still used in 500 counties across the country, which the National Bureau of Standards recommended eliminating 12 years ago. He also cited cases of voter fraud in Louisiana, where, he said, voting machines can be easily rigged. New York City voters, King explained, are marking their ballots in archaic metal-lever voting machines, each comprised of 27,000 parts.

“There are 3,043 counties in America, and, depending on who’s counting, more than 200,000 election precincts in America,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of money to fix the system.”

Estimates for the cost of such “repairs” could exceed $6 billion, Soudriette stated, but he warned the panel against endorsing any immediate, potentially short-sighted solutions that may not work over the long term.

“It’s important we not lose sight of the fact that even though people had problems with the dimpled chads, on the whole, election administrators around the United States did a very good job. In 95 percent of the jurisdictions, the elections went very well,” he said. “Our challenge here today … is how do we take the opportunity and come up with some recommendations and changes to address those glaring problems that did arise through this election process.”

The most glaring problems, according to Lewis, are inconsistent ballot design, aging and often malfunctioning voting equipment, and inherent imprecision in the law about what constitutes a vote and how recounts should be conducted.

“Certainly we’ve learned that we need to always pay attention to the process itself,” Lewis said. “The election process in America has worked exceedingly well for 200 years, and the result of this election should not so alarm us that we lose faith in the process – because the process does work. It is flawed, and it needs some fixing, but this is about evolution, not revolution.”

Potter suggested considering the idea of setting a “federal minimum technological standard” for ballot design and tabulation.

“What’s happened over the past 40 to 50 years is that the country has changed significantly,” he said, “but I think you can make the argument that the voting systems haven’t adapted themselves to all of those changes.”

Speaking via teleconference from Alabama, Priest urged the other panelists to resist any major systemic changes dictated from Washington.

“I think the secretaries [of state] are a little concerned about having the federal government involved in the process,” she said. “I also think we are a little concerned about un-funded mandates. … Election equipment is expensive, and we have found out through this process that …there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer for this.”

Tighe touted the benefits of Internet voting, pointing to the results of last month’s mock elections conducted by in which 1.3 American school children cast their ballots. Younger people appear very comfortable with the new technology while also increasingly apathetic toward the conventional election process, he explained. “My guess is that the two will create a [future] demand for Internet voting,” he said. “But Internet voting is an answer, not the answer.”

“There is no single solution,” Soudriette said. “In order for us to move forward, we have to look at all the different elements of the election process. …We need to remember that in the United States we have the tradition of local control and local involvement. We can’t just throw that out. Yes, there can be a menu of options … but at the same time I think it’s a mistake to think that there is a silver bullet – a model that we need to follow.”