November 1st, 2006 11:18 EST
New Tools Encourage Americans To Exercise Right to Vote
Washington -- Although not as dramatic as the presidential elections, which occur every four years, the U.S. midterm elections – so-called because they occur about halfway through the presidential term – are enormously important.
In the upcoming midterms set for November 7, American voters will be electing all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 33 of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate, members of state legislatures and state governors.
About 40 percent of all eligible voters cast ballots in the 2002 midterm elections, according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington.
To encourage more eligible voters to exercise their rights and in recognition of the changing times and improved technology, the U.S. government has undertaken a number of steps.
HELP AMERICA VOTE ACT OF 2002
On October 29, 2002, President Bush signed into law the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). Congress passed HAVA to address voting problems encountered in the 2000 presidential elections.
The result of bipartisan recommendations by the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, the law respects the primacy of state and local governments in the administration of elections. State participation in HAVA is voluntary.
HAVA provides funds to states to replace punch-card voting systems and calls for minimum election administration standards for states and local governments with responsibility for administering federal elections.
HAVA also established the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), an independent bipartisan entity. Among its duties is administering federal funding to states to help them improve their voting procedures. Since 2003, states have received $2.9 billion under HAVA to improve their elections processes.
Other duties of the EAC include producing voluntary voting systems guidelines; accrediting testing laboratories and certifying voting systems; and disseminating information and guidance on laws, procedures and technologies affecting the administration of federal elections.
The goal of the effort is to ensure that every citizen’s vote is counted. At a July 19 joint hearing before the House Science and House Administration committees, election officials and voting technology experts reported on HAVA’s impact.
Donetta Davidson, commissioner of the EAC, told lawmakers that in the 2006 elections, one-third of voters will cast ballots on new voting machines, and, for the first time, every polling place will be equipped with machines to allow people with disabilities to vote privately and independently. (See related story.)
INNOVATION AT THE POLLING PLACE
According to a study by the League of Women Voters, a nationwide nonpartisan political organization established in 1920, election officials across the United States are using new technologies and procedures to make it easier for voters to cast their ballots.
The study, Thinking Outside the Ballot Box: Innovations at the Polling Place, these changes run the gamut from dramatic to subtle. For example, Scott Doyle, who manages elections in Larimore County in Colorado, analyzed voting patterns in his county and came up with the concept of “vote centers." As a result, Larimer County replaced its 143 polling places with 31 full-service vote centers where anyone in the county can vote. Previously, a voter had to cast ballots at the assigned polling place.
Other examples in the league's report include:
• Early voting in Clark County, Nevada, where more than 40,000 residents cast their ballots before Election Day at a popular shopping center;
• Electronic poll books in Seminole County, Florida, which eliminated the use of paper poll books and connected polling places to the voter registration database; and
• Uniformity and statewide standards in Georgia, which looked to Kennesaw State University for assistance in technology testing and elections official certification.
The hope is that by increasing the ease and efficiency of the voting process, more eligible voters will exercise their voting rights. As Doyle observed: “We are still voting the same way we did 150 years ago, and we don’t live that way any more.”
COMPUTERIZED VOTING MACHINES
Computerized voting machines are seen by many as huge improvements over paper-generating voting machines. But even though their ease of use is undeniable, many observers are concerned that the machines are vulnerable to hacking (electronic tampering) and that “paper trails” are needed to ensure that the vote counts can be verified if challenged.
In the 2006 elections, about 80 percent of the electorate will vote on either optical-scan or direct-recording electronic (DRE) devices, according to the nonpartisan organization electionline.org, which monitors election reforms. Optical-scan machines read paper ballots and count the votes recorded on them; DRE devices are similar to touch-screen computers. Some, but not all, of the new touch-screen machines create a paper record of votes, which can be used to verify a computer's accuracy. The remaining 20 percent of the electorate will use old-style punch cards, lever machines and paper ballots.
The risks of hacking, improper programming and machines malfunctioning are among the chief worries about the new voting machines.
"The question is not whether we can eliminate these problems – we cannot – but how we can cope with them," said Edward W. Felten, professor of computer science at Princeton University in New Jersey. Felten, in his testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Administration September 28, said someone could install malicious software on an unattended voting machine in just one minute and steal votes with little risk of detection. Because of this, "we should take extra care to secure the chain of custody for voting machines and vote-storage media from now until Election Day," Felten said at that time.
Paper records are not immune to fraud either, and risk being illegible or incomplete. If designed properly, however, “they have different failure modes than electronic records,” Felten testified, "so that the combination of electronic and paper record-keeping, if implemented well, can be more robust against fraud than either would be alone."
More information on the Election Assistance Commission is available on its Web site.
The full text (PDF, 16 pages) of the League of Women Voters report is available on the organization’s Web site.
For additional information, see 2006 Midterm Elections.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)