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The Voting Mess

Written: November 2022

There are many problems with our election system. Fraud is not of them. Human error is. A few of the problems include old technology, complicated ballots, polling place confusion, insufficient trained staff, and politically mandated procedures. I will highlight a few problems in this post.

Hundreds of thousands of voters appearing for the March 22 2016 primaries in Arizona were confused, inconvenienced, and outraged at the excessive wait times. Many Arizonans left the polls in disgust.  Others waited as much as five hours.  The late Harris Miller, formerly President of the Information Technology Association of America, a leading industry trade group for information technology companies during the late 1990s, had a lot of experience with the American voting system because the voting machine companies were members of the Association. He is in favor of Internet voting. “Visiting polling places to vote has served us well for many years, but it is time for a more modern approach”, he said. Miller pointed out in addition to aging voting machines, we have aging and ill prepared election workers. Historically, most polling place workers have been women, but as more women began to work outside of the home, the supply of election workers has become strained. I confirmed this with Regina Ofiero, an election worker since 1985. Ms. Ofiero is a moderator at the Danbury High School polling place in Fairfield County, Connecticut. As moderator, she is in effect the manager of the entire voting process at the polling place, including recruiting poll workers. She said at least 70% of the poll workers are women. Not only are the existing workers aging, but very few young people are expressing interest in the job.

During the March 15, 2016 primaries in Florida, according to the Supervisor of Elections Office, the voters in one precinct in Flagler County were given the wrong ballots, resulting in about 30 people who voted for the wrong county commissioner candidates. Election officials went through every ballot individually and corrected the errors. The county election was not impacted and there was no effect on the Presidential race, but it is one of many examples of human error.

In Orange County, Florida, during the 2016 primary, about a dozen of the 251 precincts ran out of ballots. As early as 9 a.m., the Pinecastle Masonic Lodge and several additional precincts ran out of both Democrat and Republican ballots. At some precincts, the order to print more ballots was incorrect. Instead of printing more Presidential ballots, more city ballots were printed. Voters were told to come back later. More than a dozen citizens protested outside the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office. The Supervisor had absentee ballots printed and hand-delivered to voters’ homes or at workplaces later in the day.  Also, several polling places in Orange County had problems verifying voter registration. The tablet computers used to swipe a voter’s driver license had problems connecting to the Internet. These locations had to request delivery of printed registration books from the archives.

In Polk County, Florida, a precinct poll worker couldn’t find the Democratic primary ballots. When the worker opened the polling place, the volunteer only handed out the Republican ballots and told Democrats they couldn’t get a ballot. Voters called the Supervisor of Elections Office, which told the poll worker where to find the ballots. These are a few examples of ballot problems and human errors which happened in many states during the 2016 Presidential primary.

All of the current voting methods can be subject to error because they depend on a certain level of a person’s knowledge of the voting process. Some ballots are not well designed and can be confusing. Very few ballots require a simple choice: vote for A or vote for B.  The design of some other ballots is not so straightforward. Some ballots list several dozen choices. In addition to the federal and statewide races, ballots may include propositions, city and county elections, school boards, water and fire districts, judges and more. Which races and contests are on which ballots depend on where a voter lives. In Arizona, there are 22 tribes and 20 tribal reservations. Many of them stretch across counties. The largest is the Navajo Nation. It spans three counties, each one with different voting practices. Precinct rules require street addresses.  In some tribal or rural areas, there are no street addresses.

Ballot instructions, candidate and party listings, party symbols, and, in general, variations that result from a complex and highly decentralized election system provide ample opportunity for all but the most sophisticated voters to misunderstand, mismark, or spoil their ballots and for all voters to feel confused and frustrated. Confusion can lead to errors.

Like most problems in the world, the root cause is the politicians. In Arizona, voters were urged to not return their ballots early, instead drop them off on election day. Then the same politicians accused the election officials of dragging out the counting process and ignoring the fact each ballot must be verified by comparing signatures to voter registrations, hundreds of thousands of them. In Pennsylvania, an election law prohibits mail-in ballots from being counted until the polls were closed. In Florida, I sent in my ballot in late October. I checked the website a few days later and saw “Your vote has been counted”.

Some politicians are urging paper only voting, get rid of the machines. Hire tens of thousands of temporary workers to count the votes manually, rent a football stadium sized facility for all the workers and ballots. One study showed human counting of large numbers has an error rate of 2%. The delays would be longer. An Arizona audit took three months to hand-count 2.1 million ballots. It was reported to be plagued with inaccuracy. Fraud is not an issue. Modernization is. States with modernized procedures comfortably announce their results the night of the election.

If you are interested in this subject, you may want to check out Election Attitude – How Internet Voting Leads to a Stronger Democracy. It is available in Kindle, paperback, Audible, and soon in hardcover.