Counting the Lost Votes of Election 2000

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Noel Galen makes his decision in the voting booth

Its no secret that the 2000 elections did not go smoothly. For months after Election Day, the nations attention was riveted on Florida, where charges and countercharges flew between election officials furious over lost, misplaced, or uncounted votes.

But while voting irregularities in the Sunshine State may have garnered the bulk of our attention during those strange days, ballot problems werent specific to Florida. According to a new study by social scientists at MIT and Caltech, as many as four to six million votes were lost in the 2000 presidential election, all thanks to voting machine problems, ballot confusion, lost absentee votes and failed voter registration.

Sponsored by the non-profit Carnegie Corporation, the study investigates what went wrong last November — and perhaps more importantly, what we can do to make our voting system work for everyone.

Steve Ansolabehere, a political scientist at MIT and co-director of the Voting Technology Project, spoke with Tuesday: What prompted the interest in this study? Was it the problems in Florida, or did you have an indication of widespread, national problems?

Steve Ansolabehere: It was a mix of reasons, really. The people involved in the study all have different concerns. But the immediate initiative behind the study was that David Baltimore at Caltech was pretty engrossed in the recount efforts and felt there were problems with the technology.

Were these numbers surprising to you?

Yeah. For example, I didnt think the registration problems alone would result in 3 million lost votes. I never would have guessed that the problems were as bad as they were. The 2000 election was eye-opening: Some counties lost votes about 10 percent of their votes. In late December and into January, we started talking to election officials and they were saying they were having problems with registration.

You seem particularly concerned by problems with registration.

Registration is this very complicated system to manage. And with the advent of groups doing a lot of registration drives and having more control over the registration process, and people registering online, the situation has gotten even messier. We anticipate things are going to get a lot worse until someone takes control over the situation. People think theyre registering and theyre not, or there are computer malfunctions.

One of the most serious problems happens at polling places, where you can walk in and if youre not registered for that precise polling place, they wont have your name anywhere. You could be registered to vote two blocks away, and no one will be able to tell you that.

Would extending our voting window, to two days, for example, help ease the congestion and confusion?

Its hard to say — its tough to find exact data on that. Places where there are only mail-in ballots and therefore less of a time constraint, like Oregon, have had very good results.

On the other hand, were very concerned about absentee ballot on demand. Thats different than requesting absentee ballots with cause, which is if youre traveling or in the military or youre sick. On demand means you just dont feel like making the effort — and the number of people asking for absentee ballots is growing, by 25 percent in California, for example.

Theres no indication absentee ballots on demand increase turnout — these are people who would vote anyway. But there are many indications that absentee ballots are more susceptible to fraud. We face a lot of the same potential fraud problems with Internet voting.

The report cites faulty equipment, failed registration, polling place deficiencies and confusing ballots as reasons for the missing votes. Which do you consider the most grievous of the voting problems?

If I had $500 million to help this system Id spend it equally on upgrading voting equipment and making sure registration information was accessible to each polling place — either by leasing a laptop to each polling place and making the lists available online or by simply providing more extensive lists to the poll workers.

Both steps would cut the rate of lost votes in half. The improvement would be immediate, and there would be no need for re-inventing the process.

What is the future of voting? Will we see a high-tech solution in the near future?

In the long run, I think touch screen computing will be important. But for the moment, paper ballots do the best. This is something people are familiar with — unlike punch cards. I mean, where else in your life do you use punch cards? Nowhere. And we vote infrequently enough that punch cards are really strange to many of us; they can be really confusing.

What do you hope will come of this report?

Well, were getting a very good response from the media. The real question, of course, is whether policymakers will pick it up and build consensus. Congress is really intent on doing something — especially to develop usability and security standards.