No More Minnesotas
Patrick Ruffini is tired of seeing Democrats win close elections that were apparently won by Republicans on Election Day. He contends, “we are inviting a crisis of confidence in our election system if it looks like the winner is dependent on the time we count ballots: usually a Republican on the day of the election when standard procedures are followed, and then a Democrat after protracted recounts and court battles.”
Leaving aside the partisan aspect of this, he’s right about the “crisis of confidence in our election system” issue. Many Democrats think Florida’s Electoral votes–and hence the presidency–were stolen in 2000 and are dubious of Ohio’s vote in 2004, for example. So it cuts both ways.
Patrick’s proposed solutions are interesting, although I find some problematic.
Full electronic voting with a paper trail audit. There’s a reason Paul Carmouche didn’t challenge a 356-vote margin in LA-4: because the voting was 100% electronic. Critics have made good points about the lack of a paper trail on many of these machines. But MN-SEN shows that optical scan ballots, preferable only to hanging chads, are not fulproof. While plenty of bugs have been demonstrated on e-voting machines, there’s no evidence (to date) of actual votes being mis-counted or lost — and a paper trail should greatly improve the detection and resolution of these issues in real time.
Electronic voting is slow, confusing, and subject to theoretical mass manipulation. Mark-sense ballots are much more intuitive and have a built-in paper trail. The solution is simple, if draconian: No tolerance. Ballots that are incorrectly filled out are thrown out. Zero interpretation. If you vote in the wrong place, write in “Lizard People,” or otherwise don’t follow the ridiculously simple instructions, your ballot is excluded from the process. Period.
All ballots counted within 72 hours. It shouldn’t take weeks to count absentees and provisionals. Let’s set a reasonable window for counting every vote — like 72 or 96 hours — understanding that this might be different in states that are largely vote-by-mail.
I fully agree. This would require an earlier deadline for absentee voting but would be well worth it.
Zero tolerance for lost-and-found votes. Negligence in handling voted ballots should be made a misdemeanor offense at a minimum. Election officials should pay heavy fines and face removal for incidents like the 133 “lost” Minneapolis ballots. Heavy legal penalties should be a deterrent to “losing” ballots that are then “found” at conveninent points in a recount.
I agree in theory but think it impractical in reality. Most “election officials” are elderly volunteers doing the best they can with little training. You can’t punish people doing a thankless, complicated task out of a sense of civic duty because they’re not good at it. If we’re not going to have trained professionals doing the job — and we’re not; we vote too infrequently and have too many polling places — then we’re going to have to live with some degree of incompetence. All we can do, really, is make the process as simple as possible and remove as much human judgment as possible.
An open election results standard. I want this for other reasons, but a bunch of tech people should get together to formulate a standard for the reporting of real-time precinct election results in XML that also covers 1) reporting status of absentees and provisionals, and 2) historical precinct data, including notional numbers from census block counts for re-precincted areas. For all precincts, we should know how many voters are registered to get a real sense of voter turnout as well as how many people voted in this precinct in the last few elections. Practically, this means that the spotting of anomalies can be crowdsourced to the online community. If turnout seems abnormally high or low for a precinct, we can know in real time.
This sounds like a good idea but I don’t have the technical expertise to make a sound assessment.
Beyond the technical details, though, there’s something more fundamental at stake here: The elections in question are properly thought of as ties. No one truly knows whether Al Franken or Norm Coleman got more votes. Ditto Bush and Gore in Florida. Ditto Gregoire or Rossi in Washington’s 2004 governor’s race. We’ve all got our ideas which, not coincidentally, overlap with our preferences. But, in truth, margins of a couple hundred votes out of millions cast are irrelevant. Not only would a third and fourth count produce different results yet again but at some point it simply doesn’t matter from the standpoint of democratic theory.
If we’re truly concerned with making sure that the person who is slightly more preferred than another, then we’d be better off changing the election rules rather than trying to get better at counting the marginal vote. Why not have some sort of tie-breaker system for races where the margin is less than one percent?
In cases where a third party candidate gets a significant number of votes and no candidate gets a majority, instant run-off voting would be a solution. As would an actual run-off election. Or, perhaps, you could require a run-off (whether instant or actual) only in cases where the margin between the first two candidates is less than one percent (or two percent, or whatever), keeping it first past the post but considering elections within the margin to be ties.
In cases where only two candidates participated and the margin is negligible, it gets tougher. A re-vote may be the fairest solution but it’s not a perfect one; the dynamics change radically. It may be better to have a coin toss or a rock-paper-scissors tournament decide the thing. At least that way, the acknowledgment that the outcome was a tie would soothe the sense that someone was robbed.
UPDATE: I forgot one important reform: Non-partisan election officials. As noted above, the vast bulk of “election officials” are citizens, like our own Dave Schuler, who volunteer their time as a community service. There are, however, a handful of true officials — Secretary of State and county level election supervisors — who have official authority. These people should be nonpartisan and, preferably, trained civil servants rather than politicos. The mere fact that Kathleen Harris, Florida’s Secretary of State in 2000, was a Republican or that the Palm County supervisor was a Democrat skew the public perception of how they carried out their duties. Even unelected bureaucrats will have their preferences, of course; they’re only human. But sports referees don’t wear team logos even if they’re fans of a particular team. The result is that, when they make a bad call, we generally presume it’s either incompetence or judgment rather than foul play.
UPDATE (Dave Schuler): I want to second all of Patrick’s suggestions quoted above and underscore something that James alluded to. Elections are human actions and, consequently, there will always be errors. No election in which the margin of error is greater than the margin of victory will be deemed to be just. Under those circumstances no outcome is fairer than a coin toss. Regardless of the outcome elections deemed to be unjust undermine a representative democracy.
I think the solution is to recognize that all of these things are the case, accept them, and not perseverate on them.
Laws should be changed so that when three or more candidates are running and the election can’t be certified within 72 hours there should be a run-off. If there are only two candidates and the election can’t be certified within 72 hours they should just flip a coin as is the case in Minnesota if there’s a numeric tie.
At this point the senatorial election in Minnesota will never be deemed just as the presidential election in Florida in 2000 was not deemed just. In Minnesota there should have been provisions for a run-off just as there should have in Florida and there should have been provisions for dealing with the situation in which the margin of error was greater than the margin of victory.
Bottom line: we shouldn’t obsess over perfection in elections. We need means of dealing with their imperfections that are themselves determined through the processes of representative government.