Director, Early Voting Information Center at Reed College
The first two days of early voting in Florida have not been kind to the Sunshine State. Already, elderly voters are having difficulties filling out ballots in Palm Beach County (the same county that produced the infamous butterfly ballot in 2000). Duval and Leon Counties are having problems feeding the ballots into the optical scanners. And voters throughout the state are experiencing long lines, sometimes multiple hours long.
It's not that Florida elections officials are not trying hard–I have met a number of local and state elections officials, and they are dedicated public servants who really just want to get the election
right. I have seen no evidence of a conspiracy to subvert the democratic process.
But what I have seen is a tendency among state leaders to respond *too* quickly to election breakdowns, adopting new technology and rejecting old technology without learning the lessons of the past.
This year, the problem that Florida is experiencing with long lines could have been anticipated. To the credit of state officials here, they decertified their electronic voting machines because voter confidence in the machines had reached rock bottom. But in their desire to move to a paper-based system, Florida adopted a relatively new and untested technology: "ballot on demand." Glitches associated with ballot on demand are the cause of most of the problems this year.
Ballot on demand means when you walk into a polling station, you can get the right ballot that shows all the candidates and offices you're suppose to vote on. And that's a lot harder than it looks...
Think about how we conduct elections in the United States. We vote for MANY offices. Your friends in a neighboring town very likely vote for different state, county, and local offices, so they need different ballots.Election officials call these "ballot styles," and some counties have to manage literally hundreds of different ballot styles in a single election.
This is not a problem when everyone votes in a local precinct, but early voting creates "super precincts," where voters from many places cast ballots in one central location. This means that Joe needs to vote on ballot one, and Jane on ballot two, and James on ballot 127.
If you have an electronic machine, it's easy to provide different ballots. If you are voting on paper, you need to have a ready supply of all the different ballots or, in Florida's case, try to print each ballot when the voter shows up.
In a recent report on Florida's primary, Conny McCormack, previously the clerk-recorder in LA County, estimated that getting the ballot in front of a voter in Florida took 2-3 seconds under the old system, and 60-90 seconds under the new system. That extra minute and a half didn't cause much concern in the primary, but multiply those minutes by thousands and thousands of voters, and you have long lines.
This is a case where good intentions ended up leading to bad results. Florida officials should have anticipated these lines. And they should have put systems in place to reduce the wait. By the next
election, they probably will. What would be a mistake is once again overreacting and once again dramatically reforming their election system.
Editor's note: Paul Gronke is a professor at Reed College http://www.reed.edu/~gronkep
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