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Election Reform

February 2005

Election Reform

by Jim Fox

Jim Fox is a civil engineer, retired after 32 years industrial engineering with Anvil Corporation. He moved to Washington, from his home in Maryland in 1970, after serving several years with Peace Corps in Bangladeish, Iran and Nepal.

The 2000 and 2004 elections raise too many questions about the status of democratic processes in the United States today. As they find their issues threatened, different groups question various parts of the overall system. Each issue further cracks open the lid of what may be a can of worms, or a Pandora’s Box. Ever-closer races dramatically illustrate that every vote does count. With margins of a few dozen out of millions, what was once statistical “noise” can now be critical to determining the winner of an election.

Meanwhile, our electoral systems, steeped in tradition, rely on procedures suddenly quaint and long out of date. Systems are expected to provide far more performance than is inherently possible. Yet even the most modern systems are plagued with evidence of errors, abuse or fraud. Election reform will require an evolutionary process, over many years. Done right, constitutional amendments may be required.

Errors, lost votes and inadequate management need increasing attention. Far more seriously, allegations have been raised and documented, concerning conscious disenfranchisement and tally-manipulation. Fraudulent activities are serious, tantamount to treason, and cannot simply be dismissed as “the way the game is played” or “how it’s always been.” They must be vigorously investigated, prosecuted and punished.

One or Two States Cannot Be Allowed to “Throw” Elections

The U.S. is unique, having dozens of different voting systems. Problems are both local and nationwide in impact. One or two corrupt states cannot be allowed to “throw” an entire election, overwhelming the rights of all others.

We are now focused on qualification and counting systems. However, if we are to regain control and confidence in our democratic systems, review quickly expands to half a dozen related areas. These include: party politics, candidate selection, media access, campaign finance, right to vote, electoral college, voter and ballot qualification and vote tally systems. Each of these areas has problems needing investigation and reform, as part of the whole.

Issues become more complex than expected; we find conflicting cross-purposes and unintended consequences. For example, we want strict voter identification, but fear a federal citizen database. Despite simplistic rhetoric, things are never as simple as we assume. Political in nature, these opposing objectives and secondary consequences, require careful recognition, balancing and compromise.

Candidate Selection

At present two major political parties dominate most of our government. They provide value to society: ideas, the energy for debate, and an ongoing reservoir of organized volunteer and professional staff for the operation of government.

However, political parties also limit options. Over a dozen other parties are relegated to the role of insignificant also-rans. As we focus on two candidates, we loose alternative ideas and quality debate. Two parties tend to exploit “the politics of division” forcing extreme partisan positions, ignoring more moderate positions, unless forced to compromise.

While the adversarial tension of two opposing parties can bring balance; more parties or a nonpartisan ombudsman should be included to speak for non-aligned independent citizens. Our two parties presently divide us, rather than working for the common good.

States struggle with the question of whether candidates are selected by the people, or pre-selected by the parties; and whether candidates are responsible to the people, or responsible to the parties. This dichotomy of allegiance needs to be recognized, acknowledged and solved

Pre-selection through the party caucus system, may be at odds with a statewide primary. The present ambiguity may need direct resolution by either the parties paying for their own selection process, or the state insisting on a truly open multiparty primary election.

Political parties tend to agree on restricting candidate participation to themselves only. In the marketplace of ideas, we need more competition, not less.

Media Access and Influence

For a robust democracy, we have major issues requiring vigorous and logically disciplined debate. This rarely happens. At most we get selected excerpts of monologs delivered to cheering sympathetic audiences. This presentation of issues is not peer-reviewed, unlike the sciences. Debate remains unchallenged and circular, never synthesizing towards a quality conclusion; and we are short-changed.

Rather than an independent fourth-estate, the media sells its services through its advertising department. Conflicts of pandering to audiences for ratings, selling political advertisements and reporting “news” are hard to resolve and control.

Through omission, news media consciously or not, biases reports and our resulting views of reality. A media trend can make or break a candidate. In the 2004 presidential election, after a few caucuses, the media suddenly announced our candidates, and campaign-funding sources reacted. Evidence of serious voting irregularities has not been widely reported.

Our election campaigns take far too long, for what they produce. After a few minor state caucuses, we are presented with two appointed survivors and alternative debates wither away. Then, we suffer too many months of meaningless poll status reports, which distract and substitute for debate of real issues.

During the election eve TV show, media statisticians declare the winner, long before all ballots are in. This non-constitutional, ad hoc declaration based on statistical sampling, has no basis in law; yet the public accepts it as definitive. Absentee voters, mailing their ballots on election day, have no effect on these projected winners, or the next day’s concession. They are effectively disenfranchised; yet we have seen in close races, every single vote must be counted.

Campaign Finance

We have the best government money can buy. Government is sold to the highest contributor; that’s no longer questioned. Candidates need huge financial resources to win—minor investments from an aristocracy of individuals and corporations. Fortunately, Internet solicitation has tapped new sources.

But what do we get in return for the millions expended—meaningless sound bites and vitriolic propagandistic video-clips. After which, our legislators and officials have to remember who their best friends were, with a few favorable words or legislative favors, here or there.

Corporations are societal creations, they are not citizens; and they should be simply excluded from the political process, by law.

Right to Vote

It is said that every individual’s “right to vote” is not in the U.S. Constitution. Voting procedures are controlled by each state in various ways (subject to specific federal requirements). As such, individual rights to vote, depend on where one lives. Felons, for example, regain voting rights in some states; while others forfeit them forever. We want more citizen participation, but only by voters “we” approve.

Electoral College

An anachronism, understood by very few voters; reform of the Electoral College is long overdue. It’s winner-take-all provisions provide false mandates, and effectively disenfranchise the minority in every state. Any usefulness is long past, yet reform requires a difficult constitutional amendment. Proportioning electors per the popular vote is a trivial local patch; however, total reform is overdue.

Electoral College procedures do recognize (far better than today’s voters) the essential time required for collection, processing verification, validation, counting, recounting and eventual certification of vote totals. Several weeks are required for a proper job, and both Federal and State Constitutions properly provide time for this activity.

Voter Qualification Standards

We are long past the time when everyone in a precinct knew each other. We are a very mobile society. Yet traditional voter identification is often minimal or sloppy, relying on trust and criminal penalties to deter abuse.

Voter identification directly conflicts with American distrust of any national citizen database. We do not want repeat, non-qualified voters; yet we do not want SS-numbers tattooed on our arms, iris-scans or embedded microchips. Driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers serve totally different purposes, are inadequate, and were never intended for unique, unambiguous citizen identification.

Illegal voter intimidation, through harassment, continues to plague our election systems. Voters who are intimidated, or frustrated may give up, effectively disenfranchised, without further complaint or participation. This is wrong, and any intentional intimidation should be prosecuted.

Ballot Qualification Standards

Once the votes are cast, all ballots inevitably require pre-checking, cleaning and qualification. Whether manual or electronic, subjective or algorithmic, ballots need qualification review. These checks should be made by both the voter before submission, and by the tally system while counting.

Depending upon vote-media, individual votes require authentication, including subjective human interpretation. How open is a hole? How filled is a circle? How dark is a mark? Is an “X” for, against or invalid? Some voters cannot (or will not) follow instructions. Should all variations or errors disqualify the vote or ballot? How inclusive or exclusive do we wish to be?

No matter the system, some subjective judgment will be required. This qualification process must be strictly nonpartisan, visible and observed. Universal standards and procedures must be developed so that one county is not lax, while another restrictive. A standardized multilevel, public appeal process is also required.

Security is essential. Every ballot, including provisional and disqualified ballots, demand strict accountability, never simply being set aside. With wide margins, a few hundred ballots set aside do not matter. In 2004 however, a few votes out of a few million (0.001 percent), had a 10 percent effect on the final margin. We have learned that every single vote does count.

Quality ballot processing takes time. Millions of ballots, each logging dozens of individual votes, require adequate time for processing. Problems happen: machines break, data-files need backup, quality issues arise. This huge task directly conflicts with the public’s demand for instant gratification.

Few commercial or industrial processes would operate without auditing and quality assurance/quality control procedures. Yet, in many counties, ballots are processed with proprietary systems, accumulated with no independent audit-trail, with no possible quality review. This is utterly unacceptable. Commercial quality procedures and standards exist, and must be required.

Vote Tally Systems

Last but most discussed lately, are the Election Tally Systems, hardware and procedures for collecting and accumulating the votes. All tally systems must be secure, open, efficient, verifiable and auditable. If our votes don’t count, nothing else matters.

Several tally systems are in use by the various states and thousands of counties. Some are as ancient as scratching marks on paper; others feed over public networks directly into electronic database files. None are inherently reliable, secure, error free, foolproof or fraud-proof.

Every measuring system is limited by accuracy. Measuring inaccuracies are inherent to each system, not necessarily fraud. Procedures can reduce and control, but not eliminate inaccuracies. With wide margins, accuracy limitations are not a problem. However with improved political science, the politics of divisiveness, and improved demographics, we see increasingly close margins. We are pushing our systems beyond their inherent limits.

Hollerith punch cards served data processing, including elections since before 1890 until today. They provided simple, efficient data storage. However, they were designed to be machine punched and machine read. Adapted and abused as a human-machine interface (manually poked with a paperclip), punch cards are simply bad. Federal law mandates that they be retired.

Mark-sense (fill the circle) paper forms make a good ballot. The voter-verified paper audit trail is automatic. Forms are flexible, and customizable for any election purpose. People are familiar with them. The disadvantages are that there are dozens of ways to fill a circle. Sensing and tally machines require constant, independent calibration and verification.

Greatest Single Threat to Democracy

Electronic data processing can be efficient, reliable and secure. However, electronic voting terminals have a despicable record of inaccuracy, abuse and fraud. As presently used, they may represent the greatest single threat to democracy in our time.

Eventually, if we want instant results, total electronic data processing will likely be required. However, we must be very suspicious and demanding, before accepting any unproven packaged proprietary systems. These have proven to be extremely dangerous.

Electronic data processing specifications and standards can and are being written. These can ensure efficiency, reliability, accuracy, audit-ability and security. However, as yet, we are nowhere close. A few states and other countries put some of our states and counties to shame. Until open-source, independently verifiable, auditable systems are available, present electronic tally systems have utterly failed preliminary use.

Every tally system requires constant internal and external quality control checks. Minimum data processing requirements and procedures are well known. However, citizens must demand that they be part of every ballot tally system. This is an essential, nonpartisan issue.

Post processing of tally results, is already electronic. However, the most critical processing is accumulating the initial counts. These must be accumulated in the simplest, most secure way possible.

Later, in totally separate secondary analysis, complex error-prone database management systems may sort and search as much as secondary analysts wish. It is the initial count that is sacred and must be protected, secure beyond any doubt.

We Have Much Work to Do

In conclusion, we have much work to do. In a democracy, voting is our sacred right and duty. The electoral process must be above reproach.

Election system inaccuracies and quality need to be better managed with procedures improved. Any conscious disenfranchisement or tally manipulation is tantamount to treason and such fraud must be investigated, prosecuted and punished.

We need to address these issues working together as government professionals, political parties and independent citizens, in a nonpartisan way. However primary responsibility falls to the citizens calling for action.

Once we have voting systems we can trust, we can return to the normal ebb and flow of dynamic political discourse, letting the chips fall where they may. §

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