A ‘Modern’ Democracy That Can’t Count Votes
Because ballots can be bought, stolen, miscounted, lost, thrown out or sent to Denmark, nobody knows with any precision how many votes go uncounted in American elections.
For weeks, Florida has riveted the nation with a mind-numbing array of failures: misleading ballots, contradictory counting standards, discarded votes--19,000 in one county alone. But an examination by The Times in a dozen states from Washington to Texas to New York shows that Florida is not the exception. It is the rule.
State and local officials give priority to curbing crime, filling potholes and picking up trash. That often leaves elections across the country underfunded, badly managed, ill equipped and poorly staffed. Election workers are temporaries, pay is a pittance, training is brief and voting systems are frequently obsolete.
“You know why we never paid attention to this until now?” asks Candy Marendt, co-director of the Indiana Elections Division. “I’ll tell you: because we don’t really want to know. We don’t want to know that our democracy isn’t really so sacred. . . .
“It can be very ugly.”
The examination shows:
* New York City voters use metal lever-action machines so old they are no longer made, each with 27,000 parts. Similar machines in Louisiana are vulnerable to rigging with pliers, a screwdriver, a cigarette lighter and a Q-Tip.
* In Texas, “vote whores” do favors for people in return for their absentee ballots. Sometimes the canvassers or consultants, as they prefer to be called, simply buy the ballots. Failing all else, they steal them from mailboxes.
* Alaska has more registered voters than voting-age people. Indiana, which encourages voting with sign-ups by mail and at driver’s license bureaus, has jammed its registration lists with hundreds of thousands of people who should not be on them. They include felons, the dead and many who have registered repeatedly.
* In Oregon, a preliminary survey indicates that more than 36,000 of the state’s 1.5 million voters may have mailed in ballots this year that were signed by someone else. Some students in Wisconsin say they voted as many as four times.
* Louisiana’s former election commissioner, Jerry Fowler, pleaded guilty 14 days ago to a kickback scheme with a voting machine dealer. Even when relationships are legal, lines of authority blur. In the state of Washington, dealers program vote counters. In Arizona, they go as far as to help feed in the ballots.
To many Americans, the right to vote is sacred, a hard-won legacy of the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements. Memories of those 20th century struggles remain fresh among voters of the new century. Yet the system that counts their ballots has fallen into disarray and dysfunction.
The voting system is so troubled that the National Bureau of Standards, a federal agency now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said 12 years ago that an election mainstay, prescored punch-card ballots, should be junked--but more than 500 counties throughout the nation still use them.
Federal standards for voting equipment took effect in 1990, but they are not mandatory. A number of states, including Florida, have written some or all of the standards into their own codes. But all existing equipment was excepted, meaning that decades-old systems in Florida and elsewhere are exempt.
America has learned two things from the 2000 election, says Robert Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan election watchdog group in the Washington suburb of Takoma Park, Md.: “Your vote certainly counts.
“On the other hand, your vote may not be counted.”
If the problem were out-and-out fraud, many would recognize it as an object so familiar on the political landscape as to be a running joke. The late Earl Long used to say that he wanted to be buried in Louisiana so he could stay politically active.
This year’s election did include corruption, but the real problem was less obvious: In almost innumerable ways, the election system that counts the votes has suffered from long-term neglect and mismanagement.
Much of the bumbling is caused by inexperience and lack of funding. “People ask, ‘If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we have an election system that works?’ ” says William Kimberling, a deputy director at the Federal Election Commission. “I say, ‘Yes, and it will cost just about as much.’ ”
The Board of Elections in New York City, for instance, hired 25,000 temporary workers this year. The job pays $130 for a day that stretches from before 6 a.m. until after 9 p.m. “Would you sit there for 15 hours for $130?” asks Danny DeFrancesco, the board’s executive director.
“Most of [the workers] can’t read the manual,” says Martin Connor, state Senate minority leader and one of New York’s leading election lawyers. “You’re not going to get bankers, businesspeople and teachers sitting there.”
New York has trouble finding voting machine technicians who will start at $21,000 a year. “You make more money servicing laundry machines,” says Douglas Kellner, a commissioner on the election board. As a result, machines break down, voting is delayed and people leave.
Some critics blame patronage. Election workers in New York get their job through political leaders. Former Mayor Edward I. Koch calls it “a terrible system.”
But much is ineptitude. Four years ago, Susan Marler, the Yuma County, Ariz., recorder, enlisted two female inmates from the Yuma jail to help send out ballots. Some were mailed more than two days late. By that time, says County Supervisor Tony Reyes, many migrant laborers, mostly Latinos, had left to work on farms in California and could not vote.
Some places cannot even keep election directors. Several years ago, Tamira Bradley held the job in Longview, Wash. She was paid $1,800 a month. “I really felt that nobody took me seriously,” she says, so she quit to become a waitress at a Sizzler. “I made more money.”
Long-term neglect introduces so many errors into voting and counting ballots that it is impossible to know after an election exactly what the totals are and how many people may have been robbed of their votes.
Rebecca Mercuri, a computer scientist at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, and Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, estimate that at least 2 million ballots did not get counted this year across the country.
That would disenfranchise a city the size of Houston.
But these estimates include deliberate race skipping, when voters do not like any of their choices. Experts do not know how much of that goes on.
The only mistakes that can be estimated with any confidence are those committed by vote-counting machines. Providers say the machines have error rates of 0.01% to 0.1%. If that is true, counting machines alone could have made as many as 100,000 mistakes this year--an average of 2,000 votes per state.
That is far more than Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s margin in Florida for the presidency.
But machine counts do not differentiate race skipping, either, and that makes it impossible, even in the case of machines, to know with any certainty how many voters get robbed.
“Counting votes is like playing horseshoes,” says Jim Mattox, a former Texas attorney general who investigated the voting machine industry in the 1980s. “You get points for being close.”
Voting jurisdictions across the country use five varieties of lever-operated machines, six kinds of punch cards, 10 sorts of optical scanning systems and six types of touch-screen computers.
Every system has its weaknesses.
In 1998, the most recent year with records available, New York City reported trouble calls on 474--or nearly 8%--of the 6,221 metal lever-action machines that it deployed.
Each is a 900-pound hunk of metal parts crammed into a gray steel cabinet that stands 6 feet, 4 inches and looks like it dispenses cigarettes. Voters flip toggle switches to choose their candidates, then pull a big lever to record the choices on a mechanical counter.
The machines are called Shoups, after the Ransom Shoup family in Pennsylvania that began making them decades ago. They are stored in five warehouses and hauled each election day to 1,300 polling sites from the northern reaches of the Bronx to Rockaway Beach in Queens.
For 38 years, these clunky monsters have taken a pounding. “We had one that fell onto the hood of a Buick,” says Richard Wagner, a voting machine technician since 1968. “An automobile has 5,000 parts; a voting machine has 27,000 parts. If a guy drops it from the moving truck, it goes out of alignment. If it’s put out of alignment enough, it won’t work.”
The machines also are comparatively easy to rig. Louisiana changed to a Shoup competitor in lever machines several years ago after state Rep. Emile “Peppi” Bruneau showed fellow lawmakers, with coaching from a voting machine technician, how to steal a Shoup-equipped election.
With his cigarette lighter, Bruneau softened a lead plug that sealed the machine. With a pair of pliers, he removed a copper wire embedded in the plug. With a screwdriver, he took off the back cover and a Plexiglas lid protecting the vote counting mechanism. With a Q-Tip, he prodded the counter digit by digit, manipulating the vote total as easily as he might reset an alarm clock.
Punch card systems that produce chads are particularly prone to problems.
Sometimes the chads--tiny rectangular pieces of cardboard--are left hanging. Counting machines force them back into their holes and read what should be a vote as a non-vote.
Prompted by problems in last month’s election, officials in Wisconsin have decided to scrap their chad-producing systems by the end of next year. The systems deliver votes at only 7 cents a ballot, however, and they remain popular in voting jurisdictions coast to coast. Nine are in California, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Alameda.
Optical scanners have their own special problems.
They require precisely printed ballots, and they cannot count ballots when voters mark them with Xs, circles or check marks instead of filling in ovals, boxes or arrows. When the scanners fail to count those ballots, election workers in some states may create duplicate ballots or enhance the originals with a small graphite stamp to clarify voter intentions. They are meant to work in pairs with members from competing political parties.
Election officials say this system works, but Shawn Newman, an attorney who represents Citizens for Leaders with Ethics and Accountability Now (CLEAN), based in Tacoma, Wash., considers the practice a sham. “Your ballot can be re-marked, remade totally,” he says, “without your knowledge or permission. . . . “
More than 8% of counties nationwide have upgraded to fully computerized touch-screen systems, similar to automated teller machines at banks.
Apart from their expense--an estimated $100 million to outfit Los Angeles County, for instance--some election officials do not trust them. Some of these systems provide no paper records for recounts or disputed elections.
Even those that do, some experts say, might be programmed to lie.
Other security concerns are raised by Internet voting. Despite what Arizona Democrats regard as a successful experiment in their primary this year, William Kimberling, the Federal Election Commission deputy director, calls it “a breeding ground for fraud.”
What is never trouble-free is the combination of computers and humans.
Four years ago in Yolo County, Calif., a system reversed results between the first- and last-place candidates in a City Council race.
Someone had positioned two of the six candidates out of order when the computer was programmed.
“The [actual] winner knew something was wrong,” says County Clerk-Recorder Tony Bernhard, “when he got one vote in the precinct where his mother and father lived.”
Trouble With Rolls
Just as troubling is voter registration.
Alaska has 38,209 more names on its rolls than it has voting age population. Virginia Breeze, spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections, says the rolls are hard to purge because people come and go. “Alaska has always been boom or bust.”
One of every five names on the Indiana rolls is bogus, according to Aristotle International, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that helps clean up registration rolls. Indiana officials dispute the number, but most agree it is somewhere between 10% and 20%.
Aristotle representatives say six other states have rolls with bogus names of 20% or higher: Arizona, Idaho, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah and Wisconsin. Officials in those states too believe the figure is inflated, but none denies that his or her state has serious problems.
In many cases, much of the blame rests with the so-called motor-voter law. Passed by Congress, its provisions were adopted by Indiana on Jan. 1, 1995. Under the law, Indiana makes it possible for voters to register by mail or by filling out a form at any of 3,000 state offices, including every branch of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
During the five years since the beginning of Indiana’s motor-voter program, the number of new registrations has increased by 1 million. Tens of thousands, however, are the names of people who have registered more than once. Others are people who no longer live in Indiana. Still others are in prison--or dead.
To compound these troubles, Indiana makes it very difficult to remove voters from the rolls. One person might register six variations of his name. On the rolls, he would become six different people. Unless he got caught, he could vote six times.
Votes for Sale
Voting repeatedly is one kind of election fraud. Another, says Jack Compton, police chief in Alice, Texas, is hiring a “vote whore” to help you win.
While they prefer to be called political consultants or canvassers, vote whores are paid by campaigns to do favors for people in return for their absentee votes. “The last I heard,” Compton says, “it was $20 a vote.”
Alice is where operatives stuffed Ballot Box 13 with 200 votes to save Lyndon B. Johnson’s political career. The extra ballots were cast in alphabetical order and marked in the same handwriting and with the same dark ink. Johnson had planned to abandon politics if he lost his second campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1948, but Box 13 gave him enough votes to win. He went on to become vice president and finally president.
Since the bad old days, much of Texas has gone straight, says Buck Wood, an Austin attorney who specializes in electoral law. But South Texas is distinctive, he says, because its vote whores are so integral to its political system. “They’re generally elderly. They’re retired. You can make $6,000 or $7,000 a year. Of course, they don’t pay income tax on it. That’s a lot of money. It’s kind of like a little part-time job.”
Rick Sisson, an Alice businessman, pushed for a recent investigation. “They are paid to go out and solicit people for their mail-in ballots. [Sometimes] they actually pay people for these ballots. . . . The political prostitute comes to me and says, ‘I will pay you $3, $5. You put your signature, I vote it the way I want. Here’s your money.’ ”
Sometimes they steal votes outright. “My brother and a co-worker and a lady were stealing ballots from mailboxes to vote for [a candidate] in 1986,” says an Alice resident, who declines to be identified. “My brother wasn’t being paid; he just wanted [the candidate] to win. So they would take the ballots and give them [to him]. They’d put them in the microwave. The heat would open the envelope. They’d make the vote for whoever they wanted. . . .
"[My brother] knew when the mailman was coming by. They stole hundreds of ballots. My brother told me about it. He said he was scared.”
One woman in the trade describes the people she solicits as “customers.”
The woman, who requested anonymity but agreed to be called Anita, says she actually cares about her customers and does many small kindnesses for them throughout the year. In return, they permit her to request mail-in ballots for them and let her tell them how to vote. Many, she says, also give her “gifts” of votes for the candidates of her choice.
Anita says each of her candidates pays her $150 a week during the election season. “By the time the politics is over, you’ll have $1,500. I have 167 people on my list.
“There’s a girl in my neighborhood that I bring beer to. I see her three times a year. She says, ‘Oh, it’s you! It must be election time.’ I go to get her mail-in ballot request, and she says, ‘Do you have any money?’ When I say yes, she says, ‘Go get me a quart of beer.’ So I do, and then I’ll request her ballot. . . .
“You keep up with obituaries. If somebody dies, you get a new person.”
Students are more straightforward. At Marquette University in Milwaukee, where the campus newspaper polled 1,000 of them, 174 said they voted two, three or four times.
One told The Times he voted twice for Bush--once at a polling place on the Marquette campus and then by absentee ballot in Florida, where he would have been among those who gave Bush his whisper-thin margin.
“It’s easy to vote more than once,” the student said. “No one seems to care.”
By most accounts, however, the preferred way to cheat is with mail-in ballots. And that makes Oregon a target, as well.
This was the first presidential election in which all Oregon votes were cast by mail. The ease of send-in voting gave the state an 80% turnout--among the highest in the nation.
Part of the concern is about possible intimidation from family or friends when voters mark their ballots at home--or at “ballot parties,” where group leaders might pressure others to vote as instructed. But a bigger worry is about forged signatures.
It is a felony to sign someone else’s ballot. Workers try to match signatures on ballot envelopes with those on the voter rolls.
“I don’t have much faith in that process,” says Melody Rose, an assistant professor of political science at Portland State University. “I can forge my husband’s signature perfectly.”
In a pilot study, Rose gathered preliminary survey data this year on voters in Washington County, outside Portland. About 5% of 818 respondents said other people marked their ballots, and 2.4% said other people signed their ballot envelopes. Rose suspects the real number is higher, because people are reluctant to admit being party to a crime.
If the trend holds, it could mean that more than 36,000 of Oregon’s 1.5 million voters submitted illegal ballots.
Bill Bradbury, the Oregon secretary of state, says it is troubling if some people are signing other people’s ballots. But Bradbury maintains that he still has confidence in voting by mail.
An Oregon practice that many consider foolhardy is allowing anyone, including campaign workers, to collect ballots. Political operatives go door-to-door to gather them. In the crush of election day, people walked away with ballots collected from cars pulling to the curb outside the county clerk’s office in Portland.
Vicki Ervin, the Multnomah County director of elections, says she has no idea where they were going, but she has no evidence of foul play.
Turned Away at Polls
While some people vote more than once, others are barred from voting at all.
Thousands on the mostly African American east side of Cleveland went to vote this year, only to be turned away.
Because of a 1996 state law cutting Cleveland precincts by a quarter, their polling places had been changed. The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections says it sent postcards to registered voters telling them of the switch.
But of 85 blacks who were asked about the postcards during 2 1/2 days of interviews in east Cleveland, only one said he received notification.
“I never got a card, never,” says Francis Lundrum, an east side native. He says he bellowed at an election worker: “I am a veteran of the United States armed forces! I want to vote!”
It did no good.
Lundrum and the others who were turned away should have been given provisional ballots, to be certified later. Among those who did not get one was Chuck Conway Jr. “I think there was some stinky stuff going on.”
Sometimes the post office robs people of their votes. In a few small counties in Oregon, long and heavy ballots were returned this year for postage due. But the most egregious postal failure came in Washington state.
Steven and Barbara Forrest and their 29-year-old son mailed in ballots from Bellevue on election day. Several days later, two of the ballots were found on the island of Fyn, 100 miles from Copenhagen, in Denmark.
Brian and Helle Kain of Odense, Denmark, discovered them in a large envelope containing navigational charts they had ordered from a company on Shaw Island, 50 miles north of Seattle. They called the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen, which told them not to worry because it was too late to count the ballots anyway.
A Danish reporter telephoned Forrest, and he called Julie Anne Kempf, the King County election superintendent. Kempf was miffed. She phoned the embassy. Her county, she said, was far from certifying its election.
At last notice, the two ballots were on their way home. But the Forrests have no idea what happened to their son’s vote. “We hope it got counted,” Forrest says. “We feel very strongly about voting.
“We told the department of elections that we are upset about it. But I guess if you’re going to assess blame, it almost certainly has to go to the Postal Service.”
Some of this voting chaos is because there is actually no such thing in this country as a national election. Americans vote in a hodgepodge of 3,141 counties with 10,000 local jurisdictions.
Yet, election officials have never come up with uniform, binding rules for voting.
Federal standards, now in the process of being updated, are voluntary. Each state, for instance, decides which voting machine systems can be sold within its borders. Then, like patients in a health insurance network, counties and cities make their purchases from the state list.
Gary L. Greenhalgh says he favored “mandatory standards with teeth” when he directed the Federal Election Commission’s national clearinghouse on election administration from 1975 to 1985, while election rules were under discussion.
But Congress did not want to impose new cost requirements on the states, he says, and the standards became voluntary.
The Federal Election Commission had no money to enforce standards, and vendors were wary of picking up the cost. So an association of state election directors hired a consultant to find laboratories to test voting systems. The group agreed to mediate among vendors, labs and authorities.
It became an example of interdependence between public election officials and private companies that critics say can grow too intimate. In this instance, there was no illegality, not even over-reliance upon the vendors to do official duties--but there was unchallenged secrecy.
The first vendor to sign up for testing complained about Election Technology Laboratories, says R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Houston-based Election Center, which helps administer the program. Among the vendor’s concerns was the lab’s desire to examine its actual lines of computer programming code.
Administrators sided with the vendor, saying they had not intended such a deep level of examination.
“What’s going on inside [the machine] is of no concern,” said consultant Robert Naegele, who wrote the standards. “My major concerns were accuracy, reliability and maintainability.”
“That’s not rigorous testing,” counters Arnold B. Urken, a co-founder of the Election Technology lab. Mischief or mistakes could go undetected.
“I’m not saying vendors are evil, but unless you test the code, you don’t know,” Urken says. Cars and airplanes are regulated at that deep level, he adds. “Why should we demand anything less when we’re electing the president of the United States?”
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About These Stories
These stories were reported by Michael Finnegan in New York; Claudia Kolker in Alice, Texas; Judy Pasternak and Alan C. Miller in Washington, D.C.; Stephanie Simon in St. Louis and Baton Rouge, La.; Eric Slater in Indianapolis; Kim Murphy in Seattle; Terril Yue Jones in Milwaukee and Madison, Wis.; Michael Krikorian in Cleveland; Robert J. Lopez in Phoenix and Yuma, Ariz.; Rich Connell in Portland and Salem, Ore.; William C. Rempel in New York and Philadelphia; Mark Arax in Fresno; Julie Cart in Denver; and Steve Berry, Nona Yates and Ray F. Herndon in Los Angeles. They were researched by Jacquelyn Cenacveira, Vicki Gallay, John Jackson, Janet Lundblad and Cary Schneider in Los Angeles, John Beckham in Chicago, Lynn Marshall in Seattle and Sunny Kaplan in Washington. They were written by David Ferrell and Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles and Judy Pasternak in Washington.
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Proposals for Improving National Election System
There is no unanimity on how to fix the myriad problems with the election system nationally that have been spotlighted by the razor-thin presidential vote in Florida. But among the many proposals circulating, the following have been culled from interviews with scores of county, state and federal elections officials, voting equipment vendors and other experts:
* Adopt minimum mandatory national standards for voting equipment used in elections for federal offices and provide funds to help counties meet them. This could include hardware, software and ballots that would be phased in.
Current standards are voluntary. Congress has been reluctant to intervene in election procedures, which the U.S. Constitution delegates to states.
* Require periodic recertification of all voting equipment.
Some current equipment, which has never been certified, is decades old and the manufacturers are no longer in business.
* Encourage states and counties to upgrade training for county election officials and poll workers. This could be done through federal mandates, federal grants or both.
* Urge all states to set uniform standards for how to determine a voter’s intent if it is not clear.
Many states already do this, but there is no national consistency, as evidenced by various counties imposing different standards in the Florida recount.
* Adopt uniform standards and provide funding to help prevent voting in more than one state by purging county rolls of voters who have moved or died.
Currently, in many counties, when new residents register to vote, the information is sent back to the county where they previously resided. But the practice is uneven.
* Establish an ethics code for county elections officials to prevent revolving-door and conflict-of-interest problems. Set standards as well for gifts from vendors.