The 2010 elections quietly marked a milestone in election technology history. For the first time in over a hundred years, this was the first national election in which mechanical lever machines were not used. Lever machines were at one time so ubiquitous in US culture that the phrase “pull the lever” is still the go-to phrase we use to mean “cast the vote”. Most states made the transition from levers years ago, beginning in the 1980s when the first optical scanners were employed. But in New York State, this election was the first one without levers in a very long time. Fortunately, the new technology the State chose to use is paper ballots and optical scanners, not paperless electronic voting. And those paper ballots are proving their worth already in several disputed elections around the state.
Media reports of “problems with the new voting systems” really have it the wrong way around. Perhaps it’s because New York isn’t yet used to having an actual paper record of votes, so we don’t yet understand the value of a recount. When outcomes are uncertain or disputed, recounting paper ballots is the best way there is to find out who really won an election. New York’s new ability to count the paper is not a problem, it’s the solution.
Lever machines, and their electronic descendants, paperless touch-screen voting machines, don’t allow recounts. At the end of the day, all you have is a single number for each candidate representing their vote total. On a lever machine, that number is stored on a mechanical counter; on an electronic touch-screen machine, it’s usually stored on a memory card, with a print out of the totals made after poll closing. When levers or touch-screens fail to accurately record votes, and both types of machine do, the reported totals are suspect. However, there is no way to reconstruct the actual votes after the fact. The totals you have are all you’ll ever have, even if they appear almost certainly incorrect. On lever machines, mechanical counters would stick and fail to turn over, a problem which happened much more frequently than most New York voters realized. But when elections held on lever machines were disputed, there was nothing to count but absentee ballots. The totals reported on the lever machine counters were what they were, even when suspect.
There were over 250 State and Federal races in New York State this year, plus local races and ballot propositions. Of all these, the media is reporting on five disputed elections that may be headed to a recount. Sure, it takes longer to decide the outcome of an election when you have to recount the ballots. So? Getting an accurate count that everyone agrees is worth the wait. Complaints about all the lawyers getting involved, and the time it will take to reach an outcome, forget that when lever machine elections were disputed, and they were, lots of lawyers got involved and it took quite some time to determine an outcome, even into the following year. New York’s litigious political culture is what it is. However it does not reflect a problem with the new voting systems.
I look at New York State’s first election held using paper ballots and I see what I had expected to see – some wrinkles putting a completely new voting system in place, but overall things going very smoothly in most of the state. I look at this election and also see something that I had hoped to see. That is, when disputes occur – as they always do, always have and always will – New Yorkers will have confidence in the elections ultimate outcome because we count the paper. New York had two choices for a new voting system, touch-screen machines or paper ballots and scanners. If I had to vote today on which of the two systems I prefer, no question that I’d pull the lever for paper.