Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Losing Fewer Votes: The Impact of Changing Voting Systems on Residual Votes

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Losing Fewer Votes: The Impact of Changing Voting Systems on Residual Votes

Article excerpt

Problems in the 2000 presidential election, especially in Florida, initiated a large-scale shift toward new voting technology. Using cross-sectional and longitudinal data, we report on the effects of changes in voting systems in Florida and Michigan. The variety of initial conditions and the numerous changes make these excellent case studies. We find that reforms succeeded in reducing the residual vote. Every change from old to new technology resulted in a decline in residual votes that was significantly greater than in areas that did not change voting equipment. The percentage of residual votes in the 2004 presidential race in localities that changed voting systems was well under 1 percent, representing a 90 percent reduction in error in Florida and a 35 percent reduction in Michigan. We run these analyses separately for undervotes and overvotes. Using ecological-inference techniques, we investigate the persistence of residual votes when technology changed and find very little persistence.

Keywords: new voting technology; residual votes; turnout; voting machines

A major concern arising out of the 2000 presidential election was the number of potential votes that were never cast and the number of votes that were not or could not be counted-what has come to be known as the "residual vote" (Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project 2001).1 Across the country, roughly 2 percent of all those who went to the polls in 2000 did not have a vote counted for president-some because they chose to abstain, others because they did not understand how to cast a valid vote or they had problems with the voting systems themselves.

The problems in the 2000 election prompted the states to explore the possibility of upgrading voting systems and procedures as well as to change election laws and administration. They also prompted the federal government to respond, via the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 (for a review of reform efforts, see Palazzolo and Ceaser 2005). Attention focused especially on punch-card systems, in use at the time of the 2000 election by about one-third of U.S. voters. Residual votes were more than half again as high among voters using that method compared to those who used the best of the other methods. Based on these estimates, Ansolabehere and Stewart (2005) estimated that if all jurisdictions using punch cards in 2000 had instead used optical scan ballots, a half-million more voters would have had their votes counted. Especially significant was the belief that the presidential election itself was influenced by a well-intentioned but poorly designed punch card known as the "butterfly ballot" (Wand et al. 2001).

Yet, the fact is that we are only now gaining a good understanding of the effects of voting systems on casting and counting votes. Analyses to date are necessarily exploratory, as there has only been one additional presidential election to investigate, an important factor because researchers want to hold constant the office at the top of the ballot that produces a high-stimulus campaign and associated high levels of turnout. Previous research has shown that in contrast to the results for punch-card systems, differences in residual-vote rates between paper, optical scan (OS), and direct recording electronic systems (DREs) have not been so consistent, leaving uncertainty about the relative merits of other systems for voters' abilities to cast their ballots without error. Nor do we know the full extent to which the 2000 election and subsequent reform efforts educated voters and election officials. Public education and media coverage, even in the absence of new voting technology, might make voters more sensitive to potential problems, and hence, make residual votes less likely, even in the absence of new voting technology (Stewart 2006).

The research reported here furthers our understanding of new voting technology by assessing the impact of changes in voting machinery that occurred between 2000 and 2004 in two states, Florida and Michigan, in both cross-sectional and over-time analyses. …

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