Friday, October 27, 2006

US voting irregularities... redux

As the US mid-term elections work their way through the last two weeks of a typically nasty campaign stories are starting to emerge from both sides of "irregularities" - the type that can't be fixed with increased fibre.

US voter turnout at mid-term elections is typically low. Actually, it's abysmal with results showing less than 40 percent of eligible voters actually casting ballots during the US mid-terms.

Aside from all the other reasons voters offer for avoiding the polls, cynicism surrounding the process certainly has to be one of the most profound. Irregularities in the process lead voters to believe that no matter what decision they make at the voting booth, forces somewhere are working to skew the final result in favour of the candidate who can cheat their way into power.

Incidents like this do nothing to improve voter confidence and greater participation in the process.

U.S. Senate candidate James Webb's last name has been cut off on part of the electronic ballot used by voters in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville because of a computer glitch that also affects other candidates with long names, city officials said yesterday.

Although the problem creates some voter confusion, it will not cause votes to be cast incorrectly, election officials emphasized. The error shows up only on the summary page, where voters are asked to review their selections before hitting the button to cast their votes. Webb's full name appears on the page where voters choose for whom to vote.

Election officials attribute the mistake to an increase in the type size on the ballot. Although the larger type is easier to read, it also unintentionally shortens the longer names on the summary page of the ballot.

Thus, Democratic candidate Webb will appear with his first name and nickname only -- or "James H. 'Jim' " -- on summary pages in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville, the only jurisdictions in Virginia that use balloting machines manufactured by Hart InterCivic of Austin.
James Webb. That's a long name?! Is it any wonder significant numbers of voters believe that the whole game is rigged?

Amanda posts the story of her saga to participate in Early Voting in Travis County, Texas. (Incidentally, the head office of Hart InterCivic.) Her description of a screwed-up voter registration system can be a little confusing to someone who comes from a much simpler electoral registration system, but what struck me is that Amanda, a person whom I can only imagine would crawl over a mile of broken glass to cast her ballot, had moments of doubt and was almost prepared to give up.

There were times when I felt like giving up, sending in a new registration card and just hoping that it would somehow manage to make it so I could vote in the next election. Over and over again, my brain kept reminding me that mine is only one vote out of thousands in the county, millions in the state and country and it really isn’t that important, mathematically speaking. And then I remembered all the people that stood in line in Ohio last federal election in order to register a vote on machines that they knew damn well might be fixed.
And, to summarize Amanda's voter registration ordeal, it took her two days and 2 hours of work to sort out the fact with electoral officials that she was legally entitled to vote. Two days... and she was already officially registered.

Imagine, if you will, what happens when, after being frowned upon for taking time off work to vote, you encounter resistance at the polling place to exercising your franchise on election day. Many people just wouldn't bother pursuing the matter and walk away, surrendering their power to an "irregularity".

Certainly a part of the problem in places like Virginia and Texas is the disparate systems of registration and the means used to vote. Federal elections in the US are administered at the state and county level. Registration of voters and the means of casting a ballot are not nationally uniform giving state and county electoral offices a great deal of autonomy in determining the process.

Another issue is the use of electronic voting apparatus. In an age of instant information exchange and high-speed data transfer it may seem "stone age" to insist that a pencil and paper are more effective democratic implements than a computer.

To use Canada and Australia as examples, both countries have rejected electronic voting devices in favour of a system which has served them well throughout their existence as federated nations: paper ballots, twice verified registration of voters, paper registers, hand-counting of ballots and scrutineers. While it may sound slow, it isn't, and the ability to audit process and results, post-election, is clearly less flawed and more definitive than using equipment produced by this outfit.

Australia takes the whole process one step further and requires that all citizens, 18 years of age and up, are required to be registered as voters. Further, Australian election law requires that every elector vote at every election. That requires a bit of definition. A voter who shows up to pick up a ballot and has her/his name marked off the register is considered to have voted. There is no mechanism to force an elector to actually cast a ballot. If a person does not have her/his name marked off the register and can provide no good reason for not using one of the several opportunities to vote, a A$20 fine is levied - or the defaulter can take the matter to court.

There are still the occasions of "irregularities" in the Canadian and Australian systems but the frequency and magnitude are substantially less than the relative situation in the US.

Given the Bush administration's propensity to export democracy to any corner of the world, whether desiring it or not, one would think someone in that government would have the drive to correct the mechanisms of their own electoral jungle. If the stories of candidates names being truncated and registered voters being threatened with disenfranchisement are any example, the US has a long way to go before their democracy is properly secured.

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