Election 2000: Before and After: From Voting Machines to Ballot Counting, Elections Have Changed Significantly in the Last Decade

By Underhill, Wendy | State Legislatures, September 2012 | Go to article overview
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Election 2000: Before and After: From Voting Machines to Ballot Counting, Elections Have Changed Significantly in the Last Decade


Underhill, Wendy, State Legislatures


Who can forget the presidential election of 2000? The one where the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in. The one that wasn't finally, firmly and forever decided until 36 days after Election Day.

In the world of election administration, 2000 wasn't just the start of a new millennium, it became the fault line between the "pre-Bush v. Gore" world and the "post-Bush v. Gore" modern era of elections. It highlighted how crucial ballot design and voting equipment are, and how important the laws and procedures governing vote counting would become.

It was no surprise that 2001 ushered in many new, high-level task forces and commissions on elections procedures and policies, all producing reports and recommendations. But now, 12 years after that watershed election, these reports are mostly gathering dust, and the question is, did the counting crisis in Florida lead to permanent change in how elections are run? Put another way, how will the 2012 presidential election be different than the one in 2000--other than the candidates, of course?

Counting and Recounting

The infamous hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads of the 2000 election spurred state legislators to review their laws on counting ballots.

"We're better off than we've ever been," says Doug Lewis, executive director of The Election Center. "States have defined these things better and that is a real and direct result of the 2000 election. It means that everybody knows going in what counts, and it makes it far more difficult to argue."

Good thing. "I recall vividly observing the recount in Palm Beach in 2000," says Bob Pastor, executive director of the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform, which

issued recommendations in 2005. "The judge responsible changed his criteria for determining voter intent three times in one day. Rules on how a recount is conducted, and how to interpret a ballot, shouldn't be established after an election. It is easy to do, and must be done, before an election."

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Yet it's hard to prepare for all contingencies. Many laws are passed as a result of specific, hard-to-predict events. After the difficulties Alaskans had spelling write-in U.S. Senate candidate Lisa Murkowski's name in 2010, for instance, Alaska's lawmakers passed legislation to clarify when a write-in ballot is to be counted.

A recount is a very public and high-stakes way to test a state's election procedures. An easier way, says Charles Stewart III, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and expert on voting technology, is to conduct a post-election audit to examine how well procedures and equipment performed in a given election.

"The goal is not to point fingers," says Stewart. "It's to learn from the experience, and prepare for future elections." About half the states have election audit procedures in place, he says.

Voting Equipment

In 2000, it wasn't just Florida's equipment that posed risks. All across the nation, voting machines varied in terms of type, age and function. "We were voting on an untidy landscape of flora and fauna," says Stewart.

The 2000 election riled Congress enough to pass the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which created the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and provided money to modernize voting equipment, among other things.

States used that funding to improve voting machines, registration databases, voter education, poll worker training, provisional voting and independent voting by the disabled. "We've seen upward of three-quarters of the nation's jurisdictions change the type of equipment they use since 2000," says Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services and a redistricting and elections expert.

It was out with the butterfly ballots, the levers and the punch cards, and in with electronic voting machines that look similar to ATM machines and optical scan systems that "score" hand-marked ballots in the same way that standardized tests are scored.

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Election 2000: Before and After: From Voting Machines to Ballot Counting, Elections Have Changed Significantly in the Last Decade
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