Many Americans learned a valuable lesson in 2000: The technologies that emerged over the previous century for casting and counting votes are not always as reliable as they need to be, especially in close elections. Those tools — mechanical lever machines, punch cards, optical-mark readers and, most recently, touch-screen and push-button electronic units — emerged as urban populations grew and as pressure intensified for rapid tallying of results, largely from candidates and broadcasters. For years, they were widely accepted as accurate. But as early as 1975, Roy Saltman, an engineer at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology), undertook a privately funded study of voting and vote-counting technology and recommended that punch-card systems be dropped as soon as possible due to problems like hanging chads. Alarm. Yawn. Hit the snooze button. A 1988 update had the same reaction. In 1990, after extensive public hearings, the Federal Election Commission’s Office of Election Administration issued voluntary guidelines regarding the testing and certification of voting and vote-counting technologies. America was beginning to wake up. Around the same time, the House Subcommittee on Elections of the Committee on Administration held hearings on emerging voting technologies. The report of those hearings was a cornucopia of information. Another sign of awakening. Yet in 1994, one of the first actions of the new Republican majority was to eliminate the Subcommittee on Elections. Big yawn. Hit the snooze button.
The shrieks of millions of Americans in the aftermath of the Florida debacle in 2000 stirred Congress somewhat, yet it still took nearly a year until it passed the Help America Vote Act, which “established” an Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and “provided” funds to assist the states in modernizing their voting and vote-counting equipment.
But delays in appointing the members and appropriating funds for the EAC meant the commission was unable to begin its work until March 2004, too late to have any meaningful impact on the 2004 elections. The snooze button prevailed again.
In 2005, the Commission on Federal Electoral Reform, a bipartisan, private group commonly known as the “Carter-Baker Commission,” brought together 21 former members of Congress, scholars, and nonpartisan leaders to discuss a range of challenges facing U.S. election administration. The commission concluded its work in 2005 by issuing 87 recommendations to improve elections, including transferring responsibility for voter registration lists from local authorities to the states; checking across states for duplicate registration records; requiring voters to present identification in order to vote (but, significantly, recommending that states deploy mobile offices and make other concerted efforts to ensure that anyone wanting to vote is able to obtain the needed ID easily); and passing a federal law to require paper audit trails on all electronic voting machines. It also suggested changing the EAC and state election offices alike into non-partisan, professional bodies.
While there has been isolated progress on implementing some of those recommendations, the snooze button has largely won out, year after year, allowing the quality of U.S. elections to fall farther behind those of numerous other countries.