The good news about voting technology is that the upgrades put into place since the controversial 2000 presidential election have made ballot tallies twice as accurate as they were — but the bad news is that the rise of early vote-by-mail systems could erode those gains. That’s the assessment from the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project, which has been monitoring voting technology and election administration nationwide for nearly a dozen years — ever since the “hanging-chad” debacle of the Bush vs. Gore election. Coming less than three weeks before this year’s Election Day, the project’s latest report includes some recommendations that could improve the election process in as little as two years. But first, project co-director Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT, wants to celebrate the good news. “Voter registration is gradually getting better,” he told me. “Voting machines are clearly better. This is a voting-technology feel-good story. We’re getting the voter registration process into the 20th century, if not the 21st century.”
Twelve years ago, the presidential election’s outcome was plunged into doubt due to Florida’s poorly designed butterfly ballot. The controversy sparked a Supreme Court ruling that decided the election, as well as a multimillion-dollar federal program to upgrade voting technology. Back then, the “residual vote” — that is, the discrepancy between votes cast and votes counted — was 2 percent nationwide. That number dropped to 1 percent by 2006, thanks in large part to the replacement of punch-card and lever systems with more reliable systems.
For a while, all-electronic voting systems flourished — but after a series of scandals, election officials have been gravitating toward optical-scan machines and paper ballots, which measure up as the most reliable voting systems that are out there. Due to these upgrades, Stewart said the possibility of a Florida-style situation “is much lower now than it was 12 years ago.”