This month marks the 15th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore, which ended a recount of ballots in Florida, and assured the election of Republican George W. Bush over Al Gore as our 43rd president. We can all breathe a sigh of relief that we haven’t had another election meltdown with such stark national ramifications for the past decade and a half, but that’s because we’ve been lucky, not smart. There were lots of lessons we could have learned from the Florida fiasco with its “hanging chad” punch-card ballots and its slew of lawsuits: that our voting technology was quite poor, and in a close election, the margin of error would exceed the margin of victory; that handing political partisans discretion to make choices over how to count and recount the votes can lead to both partisan decision making and lack of confidence by those on the losing side in the fairness of the process; and that in close elections, we can simply count on the loser in a razor-thin race to gracefully accept defeat and move on.
At first, things started to look better on the technology front. Florida junked its error-prone voting machines, and other places followed suit. Congress passed a law in 2002, the Help America Vote Act, which provided funding to buy new voting machines. But a report earlier this year by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration sees a looming new voting-technology crisis, as the current machines reach the end of their useful lives and there is no new federal money to pay for replacements.
Along other dimensions, things are bleaker. Since 2000, states have not moved to get rid of those partisan decision makers, who decide how to conduct recounts, where to put polling places, and how hard to crack down on potential voter fraud. Florida, which had an elected partisan secretary of state in 2000 (remember Katherine Harris?) has made the position an appointed one, with the secretary serving at the pleasure of the governor.