Live-blogging: Is there a voting system that’ll work?

Greetings. I’m live at one of the Hyatts in downtown Denver where I’m blogging a comprehensive look at the election system we have. Does it work? Can you trust electronic voting? This is part of the Pew Charitable Trust “Make Voting Work” initiative. “For all the attention to election reform since the 2000 presidential vote — and the resulting upheaval… that continues today — in most states, individuals can’t get a simple answer to basic questions, like ‘Am I registered to vote?'” the project description says.

A similar forum will be held next week in Minneapolis. At the moment, few people are in the room for the 9:30 (Mountain Time) start. So sit tight. Most of the attendees are probably loss. Denver is a nice city, but there’s one major flaw (listen up, MSP 2008), there’s no directions to anything. The maps printed in the official convention guide are designed to get you to the local businesses, but little else. There are two Hyatts within two blocks, and two towers to one of them. One has to be persistent to get here.

By the way, if you have a question, feel free to post it in comments.

All times Mountain time

9:58 a.m. We’re underway with a look at the changing face of the electorate. (Tangent: Interesting story here on how the changing face of the nation is changing the Democrat Party.

We’re talking with Anna Greenberg, a researcher who’s studied voting behavior and admits to be a Democratic pollster. The pace of change, she says, is far faster on racial and ethnic diversity than we thought. But the other area undergoing rapid change is the changing family structure. For the first time last year, a slight majority of people are not married. The growth of the unmarried population has a big impact on politics.

Greenberg is looking at younger people who, she says, are much more diverse. The general population, for example, is 69% white, but looking at those under 30, only 61 percent are white. One of the fastest-growing demographic areas in elections, is unmarried women — and in turnout, unmarried Hispanic women are leading the uptick in turnout for presidential elections. Twenty-six percent of the people who turned out in 2008 primary/caucuses were unmarried women. How do you think this will affect the issues that candidates select?

This group — unmarried women — is the easiest to discourage from voting, Greenberg says. They tend to be less educated and affluent, and less likely to ask for help when voting.

10:22 a.m. – We’re talking with David Beirne of the Election Technology Council, which represents electronic voting machine vendors; and Steven Rosenfeld of Alternet, whose latest article from last Friday is “Why your vote may not count this November.”

Beirne says electronic voting machines were originally designed as “an auditing tool,” and not to be the “ballot of record.”

Computerworld Magazine has a story up that examines the problems with voting machines in Ohio in ’04.

A major electronic voting system vendor has changed its story in an attempt to explain how its machines dropped hundreds of votes in Ohio’s March primary elections, saying it was a programming error, not the fault of antivirus software.

Beirne highlights as an industry challenge that “there haven’t been any product upgrades within the last two years.” These need to be certified by election officials. He says there is a lack of industry involvement in the development of standards for voter machines. (By the way, Colorado is one of the states that has banned electronic voting machines.)

10:47 Rosenfeld’s turn. He’s not buying it. “If we in the press call something a glitch instead of it being a ‘system that doesn’t work as promised,’ are we just supposed to blame the poll workers who can’t understand the equipment? This is why this issue is so controversial and why the public has lost confidence. Nobody can understand this.”

He says there’s nobody who can look at the underlying software because the industry has declared it proprietary. He says he’s not a fan of conspiracy theories but just said the Ohio Secretary of State’s Web site in 2004 was on the same server as the White House. I have no idea if that’s true, but he’s clearly suggesting the Ohio voting machine problems in ’04 were rigged by Republicans.

Rosenfeld says the problem isn’t the machines themselves, but the voting lists that are inputted into them. In New Mexico, he says, the voting machines during the primary were missing the voter lists for an entire county. In Georgia, they didn’t deploy enough laptops to the polls with the latest voter lists.

11:09 a.m. – Three election officials — from Los Angeles County; Cuyahoga County, Ohio; and Marion County, Indiana — are speaking about whether polling places can handle the crush of voters expected this fall (remember the Minnesota caucuses last winter?)

“We’re not just asking poll volunteers to flip through voting lists and hand people ballots anymore,” says Dean Logan of Los Angeles. “It’s far more complicated now.” If I translae that correctly, that means there are more points of failure now in elections than before. That’s not comforting.

Cuyahoga County’s (Cleveland) Jane Platten says they thought there’d be more new voters registered so far this year than that city has had. Memo to self: Check voter registration experience in Minnesota. She says high school volunteers make great election judges because “they’re better at problem solving.” Does this spell the end of the little old lady at Minnesota’s polls?

It’s a sign of the times: Platten says “we will be sued on November 4th.”

Beth White, the clerk of Marion County, Indiana, says her county has the toughest voter ID law in the country. You may remember the Supreme Court upheld the system earlier this year. She’s been sued since, she said, on state constitutional grounds.

Indiana requires a photo ID in order to vote and opponents, including the League of Women Voters, say it diminishes voter turnout. White’s most interesting comment: “Indiana has a history of low voter turnout.” Oh, then.

“It’s too early to know whether (the Voter ID Law) will diminish voter participation,” she said, although she promised “we will be ready.” This law, by the way, has been a huge issue in Minnesota. I wrote about it here.

All of the people on the panel said there’ll be a lot of first-time voters in the coming election, and they tend to be less patient than other demographics (see earlier notation on the changing demographic). “These are people who are used to a rushed lifestyle,” Dean Logan, the clerk in Los Angeles said, “and that’s going to be their expectation with the voting experience too, and that’s why we have to be very concerned about long lines at the polling place. I’ve heard the stories of voters who’ve been sent to two or three places because their names wasn’t on the voting list. After two or three times, they give up and getting them back to trying to vote is problematic.”

Trivia time : Over 100 helicopters are employed in Los Angeles County to deliver ballots on election day. There are 4,300 precincts.

Question for your discussion: Why do we have 50 different voting systems? Should there be a single standard?

12:11 p.m. I’m moving on to “Will new voters navigate the system” with Mike Slater of Project Vote. He, too, is worried about the experience the younger voter may have on Election Day. Slater says many jurisdictions work too hard to bounce people from voting lists. “A number of these factors fall hardest on low income and minorities,” he said.

A continuing theme here: Each state treats the right to vote differently. “In Washington, you have a long period of time to correct a mistake on your voter application. In Florida, you must correct it before the close of registration or you won’t be eligible to vote,” he said. “In some states, election officials pick up the phone and call a voter who may have a problem; in other states election officials would never pick up the phone.”

Slater says anecdotally he sees high voter registration for November, “and we know the kind of problems they’re going to face.” He encouraged us journalists to start asking questions of our elected officials for how they plan to correct voter registration problems.

Eddie Hailes, Jr., of The Advancement Project says 600,000 voters in Ohio may be disenfranchised this year. Coincidentally, we’re about to have lunch with Jennifer Brunner, Ohio’s secretary of state.

In Ohio, as in other states, voters are mailed a card 60 days prior to election. They can’t be forwarded by the postal service. If the cards are returned as undeliverable, the voter may be challenged on Election Day.

How are you liking that same-day registration voting now, Minnesota?

Hailes, by the way, sees the future of voter information online. His organization is about to launch projects on the major social networking sites to assist voters — and potential voters — around the country.

“There should be a movement in place to enshrine in the Constitution, an affirmative right to vote,” he said.

“Amen,” said Beth White behind me.

12:56 p.m. – We’re talking with Jennifer Brunner, Ohio’s secretary of state, who gave up her judgeship to run for office in 2006 after voting regularities in the state in 2004. Brunner has had to clean up the mess, firing election officials in the state, some of whom had close ties to the Bush administration. The former secretary of state, J. Kenneth Blackwell, also was the Bush-Cheney campaign chair in Ohio.

brunner.jpgShe says she’s issued more than 70 directives this year to create a voting system “that’s more transparent.” She said she wanted to get rid of voting machines and go back to paper ballots this year, but the poor Ohio economy (she needed $64 million) wouldn’t allow it. Instead, Ohio “has been working with a bipartisan team around the state to roll out security procedures that we’ll roll out today or tomorrow. We developed minimum standards that will tell each board of elections how to develop a security plan.” Ohio will give voters a chance to use paper ballots as a backup.

She wouldn’t take the bait, though, on the question of whether the election in Ohio was rigged. “We’re trying to focus on what’s ahead,” she said when asked about long lines at the polls in 2004 in minority neighborhoods.

1:32 p.m. Listening to Rosemary Rodriguez of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission prompted me to go to the Commission’s Web site. There, I saw a news release from the commission chairman on a New York Times article from earlier this month.

On August 16, The New York Times (NYT) ran an incomplete and outdated article that reports on “a government backlog in testing (voting) machines’ hardware and software.” The article suggests that the backlog has been created by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) voting system certification process and leaves the impression that EAC is doing nothing while States are left to fend for themselves to fix problems before the November elections.

Which prompted me to go back and look at what I wrote earlier today about the guy from the electronic voting machine industry.

Beirne highlights as an industry challenge that “there haven’t been any product upgrades within the last two years.” These need to be certified by election officials. He says there is a lack of industry involvement in the development of standards for voter machines.

Confusing? Yes. Comforting? Again, no.

Here’s the Times article


1:39 p.m. – I mentioned earlier that the idea of a photo ID when voting has been a big issue in Minnesota. Now we’re going to hear about it. David Muhlhausen of the conservative Heritage Foundation is going to give a presentation on why the idea doesn’t inhibit voting. He’ll be followed by Tova Wang of Common Cause who says it does.

1:40 p.m. – Wang is going to go first because Muhlhausen can’t get his Powerpoint presentation to work. Twenty-four states now have ID laws that go beyond the Help America Vote Act. The rest — like Minnesota — just requires people to sign a poll book.

“Indiana is a state in play this year so it (the photo ID) may influence the election,” she said. “If you don’t have a passport or government ID, you’ll have a hard time voting. There will be a number of pollworkers in other states who will think this is a national law and ask for IDs where it’s not required.”

She says polling place fraud is “almost non-existent and we saw that during the U.S. attorney scandal. Not one of the voter fraud cases they prosecuted would’ve been affected by the photo ID law,” she said.

She says the argument for the law’s proponents now is that people have lost confidence in the system, noting that their citing of a fraud problem that doesn’t exist is one reason for the lack of confidence. Plus, she said, “it’s a stupid way to steal an election. There are better ways.”

1:50 p.m. – Now the other side from the Heritage Foundation. David Muhlhausen says 69% of whites, 58% of African Americans support the idea. He admits “the prevalence of in-person voter fraud is hard to find, but the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Trivia time: In Ohio, there’s a popular bumper sticker that says, I Voted. Twice.

2:08 p.m. – There was a question about people who move with a Photo ID law in effect and have IDs that don’t carry the current address. “I don’t understand why people move so much,” Muhlhausen said. “And sometimes people have to take time out of their day to take care of these sorts of things”

“Sometimes people are busy having their home foreclosed on,” Wang responded.

( This concludes the focus on our voting system. Continue discussion below.)

  • bigalmn

    Yesterday I went to one of the big franchise haircutting salons (I’m cheap and don’t have much hair left) and they seem to be able to easily track me no matter which location I visit. You would think with all that computing capability as a nation we could do the same for electronic voting.

    I paid with my debit card and they gave me a paper receipt and they kept one just in case their system fails. I don’t understand the reluctance of companies or the government in providing a paper receipt/backup to the votes.

    It could print out right in the stall and the voter could drop it in a secure box for backup if needed. They could keep a copy for their records. People think the systems has to do everything. If we make it simple it should have no problem working.

  • Bob Collins

    bigalmn, Beirne says every voting machine can print a paper record. He also says most reports of “glitches” are not equipment failures. He says “often what’s reported as a glitch is not a glitch,” but he didn’t say what it is. I’ll followup.

  • Peter M. Dugan

    The area where I vote we use ScanTron voting, the good old multiple choice testing sheets where you fill in a circle next to A, B, C, D, or my favorite E which was almost always left for “None of the above.” This seems to be an easy solution to a paper trail and an easy conversion to digital data, and the technology is tested and I assume fairly cheep. The only hold back I can see is from the voter must pay attention as to which line and letter the canidate is on on the ballet and then transfer over to the ScanTron sheet. I believe if we truly wish to go to a fully paper-less ballot there will need to be a way for the voter and others to validate their vote; be it by obtaining a voter number (which wouldn’t be attached to the voters personal information) which could be used to see that their voter number registered the votes that the voter posted. I think “the people” need the assurance of a recount, of some accountability, something to tell them that their vote has been counted. I hate to draw the lines from something so important as voting to on-line purchases, but when I buy something on-line I don’t feel like everything has done through the right process till I receive a conformation e-mail. I just think that a digital vote should have as much re-assurance as an on-line purchase. I know it is a bad simile but it is what popped into my head.

  • Elizabeth T.

    I’ve used paper ballots (West Virginia), punch-card (a la hanging chad, Michigan), and ScanTron (Minnesota). I must admit, I prefer the paper ballot. However, the scanning method used here is the 2nd best.

    What I have yet to hear is what constitutes the “original” document, when multiple media is used. I.e., I fill out the bubbles, the paper goes through the scanner, and counted. If there is a question in the future, which version – paper or electronic – is considered to be the “real” or “original” document?