Why don't US elections use a pencil and checkbox for voting?
September 21, 2004 7:00 AM   Subscribe

I've just read an article in the Economist about the pros and cons of using machines to count votes in the forthcoming US elections. It seems there are 7 methods of voting - optical, electronic etc. This might be a silly question but what's wrong with putting a cross in a box with a pencil like we do in the UK (at least in all the elections I've voted in)?
posted by jontyjago to Law & Government (26 answers total)
Fraud too easy, probably (as opposed non-fraudulent error, which is what happen in FL last time). Also takes too long to count. Also, separation of church and state--just kidding.
posted by ParisParamus at 7:08 AM on September 21, 2004

We use the pencil & paper tech in Chile too, and fraud is not easy. I was a volunteer for Lagos in the last election, and personally counted each vote at my voting table before signing off the official vote tally (along with the other candidate's volunteer and the randomly selected people in charge of the table). I then informed my party of the results and they double-checked it when the offical results came out. The vote boxes were sealed and stamped, and can be re-opened for a recount. Each person is assigned to one specific table, and the total number of votes in a box have to match the amount of people assigned to it.
Counting it took about an hour. If any votes were in doubt, the other candidate's volunteer and me discussed and agreed on what it said.
How is fraud easy?
posted by signal at 7:22 AM on September 21, 2004

I don't know. Maybe it's the speed thing: it would take weeks to reliably count millions of ballots, no?

I actually like the no-tech approach.
posted by ParisParamus at 7:34 AM on September 21, 2004

I doesn't take weeks, pp, just a lot of people. And a lot of people looking over their shoulders making sure they don't cheat (like me).
posted by signal at 7:38 AM on September 21, 2004

Paper still has human interpretation involved. To count the votes someone has to decide which box is marked. All it takes is seeing one little mark in the box they didn't vote for, and you can call it a spoiled ballot. A big problem if you can't trust the vote counters.

So back at the turn of the century (this is not a new problem), most places in the US replaced paper ballots with lever machines. You flip little levers to indicate your preference, and when you're done you pull a big lever. It all gets recorded mechanically on individual counters for each choice. No human interpretation, just a number on a counter. So less fraud. And you get the results 10 seconds after the polls close.

As to the other, newer choices... these lever machines are gradually being phased out around the country, though there are still pockets here and there. And when they have to pick a replacement, there's no companies lobbying the state election boards on behalf of paper ballots. No money there. Plus it's "so primitive."
posted by smackfu at 7:42 AM on September 21, 2004

One benefit of the lever machines (we have them in New York, and I dread the day they disappear)--if you change your mind, you don't need a new ballot. For example, during the 2000 election, I voted for Hillary Clinton to be my senator. First, I flipped the Democratic lever. Then, I realized I wanted to vote for her on the Working Families party line, so they could get more money. Instead of having to fill out an entirely new ballot or risk not erasing well enough, I just undid one lever and flipped the other. No mess. No fuss.

Also, swinging that big switch at the end just makes voting feel so good. I swear, when they get rid of the lever machines, I'm so taking one home.
posted by dame at 8:25 AM on September 21, 2004

There's not a lot of kickback money to be gained from the paper and number 2 pencil industries.

Plus, technology is *cool*.
posted by Capn at 8:36 AM on September 21, 2004

Note that optical scanning basically *is* putting a cross in a box, even if it's actually filling in a bubble like on a standardized test or filling in a an arrow-with-a-blank. The only difference is hand-counting versus machine-counting.

Hand counting doesn't scale well to American style elections because of the number of things on the ballot. We do a lot of electing, and most of it all at once. I'm not saying this is a feature instead of a bug, but it is what we do.

In a standard normal national election in the UK, you're probably going to be voting for your MP, and that's it. One office. So it's not hard to have representatives of the 3--8 candidates there to observe the counting.

In a standard normal election like the one coming up here, which offices you're voting on will depend on the state-election schedule, but it might include:

President and VP as a pair
US Representative
US Senator
Lt. Governor (**not** anyone's running mate)
State legislature, upper chamber
State legislature, lower chamber
State attorney general
State secretary of state
State comptroller
State treasurer
State agriculture commission member(s)
State insurance commission member(s)
State [some other commission] member(s)
State board of education member(s)
State highest-court judge(s)
State mid-appeals-court judge(s)
Statewide referendum #1
Statewide referendum #2
Statewide referendum #15
County commission member(s)
County prosecutor
County judge(s), trial courts
County judge(s), inferior courts
County/district school board member(s)
County/district school board budget (more rarely)
City mayor
City council member(s)
City school officials, if separate
Local referendum #1
Local referendum #2
Local referendum #5

And with the exception of Presidential and VP candidates, nobody is running as any sort of connected team, so representatives of one candidate would have little reason to trust representatives of another candidate of the same party. So you'd need independent representatives of all candidates for all offices there. And the referenda are nonpartisan, so you'll need representatives of the various interested parties there.

For which hand-counting doesn't scale well.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:11 AM on September 21, 2004

This is one of the things about the US that completely baffles foreigners. Speed isn't an issue. Canadian elections have results within 30-45 minitues of the polls closing. Fraud is avoided by having scrutineers from each party present at the counting stations.

One of the best arguments is that their ballot is too complicated (on preview, wow!). What with electing everyone down to municipal officers and inumerable propositions, US ballots can be very long. We deal with this by having lots of elections---federal, provincial and municipal rather than all at once.

I think the real answer is just that given the choice between a simple, but low-tech system, and something complicated, buggy and modern, the US will pick the shiny thing every time.
posted by bonehead at 9:18 AM on September 21, 2004

pp, in Canada the results were back by midnight, polls closed at 9.
posted by jon_kill at 9:21 AM on September 21, 2004

The cross-in-box method is occasionally fallible; in the 1995 referendum on Quebec secession, which was very close, many "no" votes in the swingier ridings were judged to be spoiled and not counted, which irks some groups that would still like to see a recount.
posted by zadcat at 9:31 AM on September 21, 2004

I'll give my answers in the order I believe them:

The theory that our government is smart, a little corrupt, and doesn't quite understand the dangers of machines with no paper trail:

There is a lot of money to be made in voting machines. Congresspeople and Senators like to give lots of money to government contractors.

The theory that our government is stupid but well-meaning:

What bonehead said: "I think the real answer is just that given the choice between a simple, but low-tech system, and something complicated, buggy and modern, the US will pick the shiny thing every time."

The theory that our government is VERY corrupt:

Voting machines will make it easier to cheat this election. The CEO of Diebold is a big-time Republican supporter. The Republicans obviously don't care about conflicts-of-interest or even the appearance of impartiality, but this answer's still a stretch. However, if you assume that our government is made up of pretty smart and savvy people, this answer becomes the most logical.
posted by callmejay at 9:36 AM on September 21, 2004

"Spoiled" votes are not evidence of fraud, or even of a problem IMO, just the expected level of noise in any activity involving more than, say, 3 humans doing something at the same time. Election results simply say "40% for candidate A, 49% for candidate B and 1% miscast".
I think its much better to have a system where like 0.5% of the votes will be randomly miscast by the voters themselves, than one were you trust a company like Diebold not to screw you over systematically, or where a malfunctioning machine can throw off the results of a whole precint.
posted by signal at 9:39 AM on September 21, 2004

I stand recounted.
posted by ParisParamus at 9:42 AM on September 21, 2004

Not to pick on the US too much, but maybe writing down your vote by hand on a piece of paper is too much work and not glam enough for a place where like half of the eligible population can't even be bothered to vote?
posted by signal at 10:09 AM on September 21, 2004

Signal, as the article linked points out, most of the US uses optical scanning ballots, which, as ROU_Xenophobe points out, require the voter to mark his or her vote by hand, on paper.

That ballot is then machine counted, but the voting itself is done by hand.

As the article says, this has been proven the most accurate of all the machine-counted methods.

The US isn't against voting by hand, there are just problems with *counting* by hand here.
posted by occhiblu at 10:29 AM on September 21, 2004

Thank you all for your answers - and to Greg (who can't get a Mefi Account - (everybody say aaahhh!) so mailed me a very comprehensive answer too). So basically the answer is that US elections elect a lot of people all at once, so mechanics can simplify that, but also there's a goodly chunk of good ole Capitalism in there too..
posted by jontyjago at 10:32 AM on September 21, 2004

occhiblu: I stand desnarked.
posted by signal at 10:35 AM on September 21, 2004

jontyjago: correct me if i'm wrong, but how did he see your email address? I thought only logged in *users* could see them.
posted by dash_slot- at 11:27 AM on September 21, 2004

And even if the current versions are unacceptable by any stretch of the imagination, there *are* real advantages, in principle, to touch-screen voting.

Primarily, it's easier for people with bad vision to vote without assistance (and you want people to vote without assistance wherever you can, because assistants in the booth can commit fraud or coerce the voter). You can make the font as big as you want on a screen without having to worry that your ballot is 28 pages long.

Likewise, if done right, it's also a lot easier to dump the ballot to Spanish and/or to add other languages as the local population needs.

All you need now is for someone to do it right.

optical scanning ballots require the voter to mark his or her vote by hand, on paper

Not strictly. You can use your feet, or mouth, or cleavage, or ear to hold the pen if you really want to.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:29 AM on September 21, 2004

d_s, it's a good point and it occurred to me - he must have got it off the website address which is in my profile as he has used the email address there rather than the email in the profile. He was friendly though - no harm done. And a good answer should you want to read it.

And on preview how does the UK, or any other country which uses pencils and crosses, help people with seeing difficulties? Surely just making the font bigger doesn't necessarily help?
posted by jontyjago at 11:37 AM on September 21, 2004

If you have difficulty reading the ballot, you bring someone with you to help you vote. My sister-in-law's mother is blind, so she and her husband both go into the voting booth together, if you know what I mean.
posted by bonehead at 12:26 PM on September 21, 2004

And I stand out-snarked by ROU.
posted by occhiblu at 12:48 PM on September 21, 2004

If you have difficulty reading the ballot, you bring someone with you to help you vote

Which is the (small in real life) problem. Maybe any individual case is a blind or illiterate woman getting assistance from her loving husband, or maybe it's an overbearing husband effectively denying his wife the right to cast her own independent vote in secret. Not a big deal, but not completely nuthin' either.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:48 PM on September 21, 2004

I think it's more like a quarter, signal
half of eligible voters are registered, and half of them vote...
posted by goneill at 5:07 PM on September 21, 2004

smackfu, spoiled ballots are NOT that easy to come buy. I say this as a Candidate's Representative (ie: The guy who gets to bitch about what is a spoiled ballot and what isn't during the counting).

Things that spoil a ballot: Marking the same symbol in two boxes. Marking all boxes (actually, they're circles, whatever) with the same symbol. Leaving the ballot blank (In Canada, YOU CANNOT VOTE FOR NO CONFIDENCE. TRUST ME ON THIS. YOU WERE LIED TO.) If you can think of it, it's probably been done. Ripping the ballot in half. Letting someone else submit it for you.

Things that would not spoil a ballot: Marking an "X" in all boxes but one. Marking a checkmark in all boxes and leaving one box with an "X". Using a happy face on your candidate and an unhappy one on the rest. Filling in the circles. Etc, etc.

And, for those wondering, here's what you can figure out after the count is done without opening the box:

- Total number of ballots used.
- Total number of ballots submitted.
- Number of ballots submitted that were spoiled.
- Number of ballots submitted that were blank (*).
- Number of ballots per candidate.

Counting was done as such:

Step 1: Count ballot tear off tabs.
Step 2: Count total ballots.
Step 3: Separate spoiled ballots.
Step 4: Separate ballots by candidate (repeat as necessary :-)
Step 5: Count each pile.
Step 6: Fill ONE box per vote on the counting forms.
Step 7: Counte the boxes filled up (NOT the votes at this point -- it's this step that introduced the error at my poll, the boxes are set in 5s) and mark the numeric total on the form submitted to Elections Canada.
Step 8: I get a copy of the form and a copy is stuck in a special envenlope that CANNOT have stuff removed without destroying it, along with ballots, etc. A few different envelopes in total.
Step 9: Box is sealed with special elections Canada tape.
Step 10: The results of the poll are called in to Elections Canada on a special Elections Canada cell phone.
Step 11: Box is driven by Returning Officer to wherever it goes (at that point I didn't care to supervise anymore, it's impossible to open the box without the tamper-tape making it obvious).

Ballot totals were *NOT* to be submitted without my approval. Period. Each candidate may have a Representative, and the Representative should be present wherever the ballot box goes (for example, if the ballot box is moved so that a disabled person can drop their ballot [NOBODY BUT THE PERSON SUBMITTING THE BALLOT MAY PUT IT IN THE BOX] I must be present and satisfied). This ensures that if your party actually cares that the election doesn't get thrown, it can't be.

BTW: Just to let you know, I did countermand one thing for the ballot at my station. The number of votes for my party was counted too high. My conscience said I had to fix that, and I got the ballots recounted. Thank God my candidate lost by more than 5 votes or, in this election, I'd have been kicking my ass for years (we are 1 seat away from a tie government).

* = Ballots Tabs - Ballots submitted - Ballots Counted - Spoiled ballots. A blank ballot isn't counted as spoiled, IIRC, from the rule book. It, however, is not counted against a candidate (obviously).

FYI: I believe our station, out of about 100 votes cast, had about 10 spoiled ballots all of which were spoiled before they got in the box because of idiots who can't read and need to remark their ballot and 1 blank ballot. The signal to noise ration on a hand count election is remarkably good.

Last, but not least, on the issue of language: Canada has two official languages both of which must be present at the ballot station. To avoid printing everything the ballot caster has to read twice, almost all general voter instructions are done Ikea-style, in pictograms. You can't lose. The only stuff that was doubled in printing were signs like "Voting booth this way" and "Voter registration here".

We didn't have visually impaired people at my polling station. I believe they would be dealt with by asking their Candidate's Representative to mark their ballot (Definately *NOT* the returning officer or anyone else employed by elections Canada!).

(yes, we're Candidate Representatives now, not scrutineers).

One more note, during the count all entrances and exits to the room are locked and nobody can leave. Not even for the washroom. The count takes up to about 1 hour.
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posted by shepd at 6:08 PM on September 21, 2004

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