Academic journal article Policy Review

The Lessons of Florida 2000

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Lessons of Florida 2000

Article excerpt

IT HAS NOW BEEN a year since the U.S. Supreme Court cut off the manual recount in the Bush-Gore election. In the heat of the battle, it seemed few could dissociate who they thought should win from how they thought the disputed issues could be resolved. Perhaps for many this is still true. But for the rest of us, the events of last year may have acquired a sufficient distance, lengthened by the intervening shock of September 11, to allow us to put down our partisan positions and ask ourselves how we would want these issues resolved in the future.

If we learned anything from this election, it was that resolving election issues in midstream, after we know which candidate will benefit from any given resolution, is a recipe for disaster. Right now, while we are still behind the veil of ignorance and do not know which candidate will benefit, we need to resolve as many open issues as we can.

Some of the issues will be familiar, since they arose in the actual dispute. But they have been greatly misunderstood, both because the rapid pace of developments did not allow for sufficient explication and because insufficient attention was paid to how the candidates would want the issue resolved if their positions were reversed in the next election. Other issue will be unfamiliar, for they are the issues that would have arisen had if Supreme Court not called a halt, and may well arise the next time around. And if anything was clear to me as I nervously anticipated those issues at the time in my role as counsel to the Florida House, it was that the issues barreling down the track would have been even more explosive and bitterly contested than the ones we all argued about a year ago. (1)

LESSON I. Better voting machines. Let's begin with the seemingly most obvious lesson: We need better voting machines. But now the nonobvious point: The problem was not, as conventional wisdom thought at the time, with punch card technology. The exhaustive media recounts have confirmed that punch card and optical-scan ballots actually resulted in similar rates of spoilage, defined as the total of undervotes and overvotes. (An undervote is a ballot that registers no vote for a candidate while an overvote is a ballot invalidated by votes for multiple candidates.)

How can that be? Didn't we all at the time hear statistics that seemed to confirm the superiority of optical scanners? Well, not quite, for two reasons First, although the focus at the time was on the undervotes that Gore and the Florida Supreme Court wanted recounted, it turns out that there were twice as many overvotes, and they were a bigger problem on the optical. scan ballots.

Second, and more important, the counties in which optical-scan ballots seemed to be delivering better results were actually only those counties that counted ballots at the precinct level. Under these systems, the ballot result is registered or rejected by the machine when the voter turns in the ballot. Such a precinct counting machine provides voters with timely feedback that allows them to correct any errors in their ballots. But when punch card ballots were also machine counted at the precinct level, they had a similarly lower rate of spoilage. When either optical-scan or punch card ballots are machine counted at a centralized county location removed from the precinct and the voter, the rate of spoilage is higher, but similar for both types of ballots.

The implication is that what really would constitute "better" voting machines are not machines better at counting, but machines that are better at correcting voter errors. This is not at all to trivialize the concern. No matter how smart we may think we are, we all push the wrong elevator button from time to time. Machines that would help us avoid these inevitable errors in voting are important and useful. But correctly understanding the issue should put to rest the misguided bugaboo that certain counting machines were disenfranchising voters. …

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