Volume 5, Issue 3 
September 2003

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Elections…from where I (used to) sit

By: Josephine Scott

For years before I advocated for software users, I advocated for voters as a state elections specialist. I know well what can go wrong. I also know that we have an amazing republic, with a voting system that quickly produces fairly accurate results. I understand why California's recall election causes concern, but the solution simply may be shoring the system through careful administration.

Most election officials, from county clerks to poll workers, view their work as a sort of calling, with the election law as their guide. Federal law provides the environment: free, fair elections open to all without regard to race, gender, religion, or ability.

State election laws provide the detail. With some variation, they give every qualified voter the ability to cast a secret vote and have it counted fairly. The level of detail overwhelms the uninitiated:

  • Designing the ballot
  • Setting up the polls
  • Handling the voted ballot (where secrecy reigns)
  • Managing nearly anything that can and will go wrong

The federal and state laws are like heuristics: follow them and likely the election will happen smoothly. Fail on the details and deal with the consequences. The law is the users' (voters') advocate.

If the law is robust and the workers are enthusiastic, why do some areas have large-scale voting problems?

Elections are complex creatures. The potential for confusion can be built-in. In Michigan primaries, for example, you are restricted to voting one party. (The purpose of a primary is to select your party's candidates for office.) You receive a ballot with all major parties, so you never have to reveal which party you vote, but if votes appear on your ballot for more than one party, that portion of the ballot is not counted. Our state's independent-minded electorate would flood the bureau's telephone lines each primary.

In general elections, people would complain that ballots were not counted properly, that election officials didn't open the counting process for observation, or that a system wasn't working properly or a ballot misprinted. These were isolated and often affected few votes. Yet every voting process from old-fashioned paper ballots to the proposed Web-based systems is subject to some type of breakdown, problem or manipulation. The key is to minimize problems with careful administration.

So what about California? California's recall election poses many problems for voters and administrators. Among the potential issues I've noted:

The election is too confusing:

Only a few states hold the vacancy election in conjunction with the recall itself. In most states, you ask voters for the recall. Then, if the answer is yes, you schedule an election to fill the vacancy--a two-election process. Some voice concern over the confusion and bias that may be created by the cost-saving unified system.

The ballot is too confusing:

Voters may ask: "What does a 'yes' vote mean? What is a recall?" "If I vote 'no,' may I cast a vote for a candidate anyway?" (The courts have said 'yes.') "Where is my preferred candidate on this huge ballot?" "Where's Governor Davis; I want to vote for him?" To add to the mix, there are now two unrelated questions on this ballot.

There are too many candidates:

There are 135 qualified candidates. Election officials know that there will be drop off in voting farther down the ballot. To address this unfairness, ballots will be rotated. The first name will drop to the last within each party, moving the next in line to the top, and so on, so that the electorate has about an equal chance of seeing any name first.

There is too little time:

There is precious little time to prepare--preparation for a statewide election takes months, not weeks. So it is possible there will be an increased incidence of problems. It's a question of quality vs. time. You remember the old project management adage: "Quality, Time or Money: Pick any two."

There is too little money:

The state estimates the recall will cost about $42 million. California already has a deficit, so there will be pressure to save money wherever possible, despite the time crunch.

NB: After this article was written the federal court decided to delay the California election - primarily over concerns about the punch card voting system. See the UPA press release about the delay of the california elections, dated 16th September 2003, for more on this issue.
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