The most fundamental of democratic processes has become more barrier-filled and error-prone than at anytime since Florida’s 2000 election, when voter list purges, flawed voting technology and a partisan U.S. Supreme Court majority ended a statewide recount and installed George W. Bush as president. This fall’s potential problems begin with a new generation of voter suppression laws and aging voting machines in a handful of presidential battleground states. And other important factors are in play, such as election officials curtailing voting options due to fiscal constraints, the increasing age of poll workers—volunteers averaging in their 70s—who must referee an ever more complex process, and the likelihood that close races will end up in post-Election Day legal fights. Voters tell academics they want consistency in voting. Yet emerging trends are poised to upend that hope in many states. This year’s big questions are: where will the meltdown—or meltdowns—occur, what will go wrong, on what scale, and, when it comes to computer failures or tampering, will we even know about it?
“The arc of American history has always moved toward expanding the electorate,” Attorney General Eric Holder told the NAACP Tuesday, saying the Justice Department was pushing back on new voter suppression laws, calling voter ID rules the modern version of segregationist poll taxes. “We will simply not allow this era to be the beginning of the reversal of that historic progress.”
“We need good technology and we need good laws,” said Barbara Simons. The retired IBM computer scientist and nationally known expert on voting technology is co-author of a new book, Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count? which details America’s history of voting machinery and election administration, and concludes that many states have neither good technology nor good vote count rules. “We are running elections in this country as if we are still in the 19th century,” she said. “The results are announced and there is no verification. At minimum, we should be doing manual post-election ballot audits for all major elections whether or not the results are close, because there even could be a major problem with an election with a wide margin.”