Magazine article The American Prospect

Punch Drunk

Magazine article The American Prospect

Punch Drunk

Article excerpt

The Congressional Black Caucus and the AFL-CIO have both made reform of the country's election machinery a top priority. A number of committees and commissions--such as the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford--have already formed to propose remedies for the nation's election practices. Congress is awash in bills, including one co-sponsored by Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey--neither of whom is known for his commitment to good government. And at least a dozen states are deliberating action.

All this attention is certainly to the good, because it suggests that some kind of legislation will come out of last November's travesty in Florida--legislation that will make it more likely, in former Vice President Al Gore's immortal words, that "every vote is counted" But many Democratic proponents of election reform have been hypnotized by the experience of Florida, where faulty voting machines seemed to dictate the final outcome. They have made the machines themselves the agents of disenfranchisement. "America's voting system needs an overhaul," declared Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. "Butterfly ballots, punch-card machines, and other outdated systems have disenfranchised too many Americans in this and other elections." While they don't say so out loud, many Democrats think that by replacing voting machines with the most up-to-date computerized scanners, they will not only make every vote count but solidify a Democratic majority.

Sadly, they're wrong on both counts. It's important to get rid of machinery that confuses voters, but replacing punch cards by itself won't solve the technological problem; and the problem of defective technology may not be as widespread as the situation in Florida would suggest. Election reform will help democracy, but it may not provide the panacea that many Democrats--still nursing their wounds from last November --hope for. Anyway, for Democrats the more pressing problems are political: Turnout is low, obstacles to registration can be high, and when an election is close, Republican officials can take measures that suppress minority voting.

Recently, the most common Democratic election-reform initiative has been to ban punch-card ballots. Democrats in Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Oregon have already introduced bills; and there are lawsuits in Florida and Indiana. "No general election ballot shall be used which requires the voter to punch out a hole with a stylus or other tool," reads a proposed North Carolina statute.

There's also action at the federal level. At her first news conference as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Texas Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson called on Congress to replace the punch-card machines. And there is an obvious case for doing this: In Florida, Georgia, and Illinois, voters who used punch-card technology had much higher error rates than voters who used optical scanners. Still, it is a mistake to focus on punch cards.

The worst instance of votes being discarded because of machine or voter error was in Illinois, not Florida. Illinois counties that used punch-card ballots had an error rate of 4.08 percent, while those that used optical scanners with error correction had error rates of 0.88 percent. (Error-correction technology warns voters if they have not voted for president or if they have voted for more than one candidate in any category.) In Chicago punch cards were used and the error rate was 7.06 percent; it was even higher in black and Latino precincts. According to a Washington Post survey, in 51 precincts with a 90 percent or higher concentration of black or Latino voters, one in six ballots was not marked for president. In nearby well-to-do and primarily white DeKalb and McHenry Counties, where voters used error-correcting optical scanners, the error rate was one in 300 ballots. …

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