When it comes to the integrity and accuracy of voting systems in the United States, the good news is that widespread technological upgrades have largely eliminated the voting-machine problems that were so evident when Florida’s disputed recount determined the 2000 presidential election. The bad news is that some of those improvements in accuracy could be undermined by increases in early voting through the mail, which is turning out to be a relatively low-accuracy method of voting, according to a new research report released by MIT and the California Institute of Technology. “A lot of changes over the last decade have made voting in America better,” says Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT, who co-authored the new report with five colleagues at four universities. “The possibility of a [situation like Florida’s 2000 election] is much lower now than it was 12 years ago.” However, Stewart adds, “We have possibly gotten way ahead of ourselves in encouraging people to vote by mail. It’s pretty clear that the improvement we’ve gotten by having better voting machines in the precincts may be given back by having more and more people voting at home.”
The new report was released today by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. It is the latest in a series of reports by the group, which formed in the aftermath of the 2000 election. A major change since 2000 has been the replacement of outdated voting systems—principally punch cards and lever machines—with more reliable optical-scan or electronic voting machines. Today roughly 60 percent of counties across the United States use optical-scan machines, and 40 percent use other forms of electronic equipment. (A small set of counties still hand-count paper ballots.)
The upshot of this change is that the overall residual vote rate—the difference between the number of ballots cast and counted—dropped from 2 percent of ballots cast in 2000 to 1 percent in 2006 and 2008, as the report notes. On the other hand, the report states, “absentee voting is more prone than in-person voting to residual vote rates.” That presents new problems, since the percentage of Americans voting by mail or at early election centers has doubled, the report notes, from 14 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2008. One study by Voter Technology Project researchers, based on two decades of data from California, has shown that the residual vote rate for absentee voters was larger than that for votes cast at polling places—by 2.2 percentage points in presidential races, 3.3 percent in gubernatorial races, 4.9 percent in U.S. Senate races, and 3.0 percent for ballot propositions.