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The Levers of Power

Why voting in the U.S. remains disorganized.

Today Americans are voting in the November midterm elections–some using computer touch screens (learn about alarming weaknesses in this technology in this month’s “Hack”) others using optical-scan ballots or lever machines, and about 3 percent using the prescored punch cards that led to the infamous “hanging chads” in Florida in 2000.

Voting Machine (Credit: National Museum of American History,Smithsonian Institution)

Roy Saltman, SM ‘55, who writes about and consults internationally on election technology, says inconsistencies in U.S. election technologies and election laws remain because states’-rights advocates have a strong footing in the U.S. Congress. In 1975, while working as a computer scientist at the agency now called the National Institute of Standards and Technology, ­Saltman wrote the first comprehensive report on the integrity of computerized elections. In 1988 he called for the abolition of prescored punch-card ballots. His most recent book, The History and Politics of Voting Technology, was published this year. Technology Review talked with Saltman this fall.

TR: What did the 2000 presidential election bring to light about voting in America?

Saltman: The fact that the voting process was very poorly run. There was no concern for human factors in voting–that is, the ability of the voter to successfully transfer his or her choices into marks or holes that the computer would understand. Poor administration of elections had occurred because the voting process had been of very low priority–essentially of zero priority in the federal government, and very low in the states. Local governments were interested in schools, in police, in fixing the roads, collecting the garbage, responding to fires. Consequently, we saw in Florida not only the use of voting equipment that was extremely difficult for folks of low education to use, but a disconnect between people wanting to register through the National Voter Registration Act and information transfer to the election authorities.

TR: How did this situation come about?

Saltman: Article 1, section 4 of the Constitution, the election clause, almost didn’t even get federal oversight into it. The Antifederalists didn’t want the national government to have oversight over federal elections. Delegates from South Carolina argued that the states “could and must be relied on in such cases,” whereas James Madison, as well as others, were all for federal oversight.

The federal government had never before 2002 spent any money on the administration of elections. We didn’t get a law that established federal institutions in election administration until that year, with the Help America Vote Act. It gives the federal government the responsibility to develop technical guidelines, which are voluntary.

We have a National Transportation Safety Board; we have a Centers for Disease Control. In health and safety, federalism has been very successful. In elections, it has not. The issue of states’ rights is a major concern that results in differing voting systems throughout the country, different abilities of felons to get their voting rights restored, and differences all over the lot about how ballots are produced.

TR: How do U.S. elections compare to those in other democracies?

Saltman: There is a very disaggregated system in the United States for carrying out elections. This is very, very unusual. For example, everybody in Brazil uses the same kind of voting equipment. That’s possible because Brazil, even though it’s a federal republic, has a strong national election commission. By contrast, in the U.S., some states, including Florida, allow the counties to select their own equipment.

TR: Even if we had consistent application of good voting technologies, what problems would remain?

Saltman: There need to be rules that prevent state government election administrators on the highest levels from serving as chairmen of their parties’ election campaigns. In 2000, Katherine Harris was the secretary of state in Florida and also the cochair of the George W. Bush campaign in Florida. She made decisions following the voting that were partisan in favor of Bush. In 2004, J. Kenneth Blackwell was cochair of the Bush campaign in Ohio. He was also the secretary of state of Ohio. Now Blackwell is running for governor on the Republican ticket–while still serving as secretary of state. He’s supervising his own election.

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