Early and Often

With the average seventh-grader at least familiar with the term “pregnant chads,” election reform is no longer the province of secretaries of state or the occasional academic conference. The issues of how voters are qualified, and how ballots are cast and counted, have received far more public scrutiny in the past half-decade than they did during the previous half-century. And yet the lack of one uniform election system–each state, county, and locality has different rules about how it conducts elections–means that there are literally thousands of voting systems to understand, making it even more difficult to evaluate accusations about failures to protect against voting fraud and suppression.

Into this maze of rules and procedures comes Andrew Gumbel’s Steal This Vote, a comprehensive and readable exploration of the American election process. Gumbel, a U.S.-based correspondent for the Independent of London, has taken the time to visit the county courthouses and elections offices where ballots are actually collected and counted, and he supplements his observations with historical tales of electoral scandal. These include Lyndon Johnson’s 1948 Senate election, in which the infamous Ballot Box 13 contained the names of 200 voters, all of whom appeared to have voted after the polls closed, in precise alphabetical order. Joining that ignoble page in American history is the Hayes-Tilden presidential election of 1876–Rutherford Hayes lost the popular vote but ultimately triumphed over Samuel Tilden in the Electoral College by a margin of 185 to 184. (The late William Rehnquist, whose Supreme Court opinion installed George W. Bush as president, published a book in 2004 that vigorously praised and defended both the process and the outcome of the 1876 election–a decidedly minority view.)

Gumbel is a breezy, confident writer who takes his subject seriously. So it is frustrating to arrive at the end of his book–after he has documented the various flaws in our electoral system and the many possibilities for fraud and vote suppression–only to have him throw up his hands in despair. To hear Gumbel tell it, the United States is doomed to resort to a sort of arms race, a system of mutual deterrence between the two parties, with dueling lawyers and other election observers dispatched to every precinct around the country to prevent wrongdoing. It’s a bleak conclusion. Fortunately for the rest of us, it’s also an unnecessary one.

When most of us hear the word “steal” in the context of an election, we think of ballot-box-stuffing or the machinations of Tammany Hall figures. In Steal This Vote, Gumbel defines “stealing” as a broad, malleable concept that even extends to strategies aimed at influencing voter beliefs and behavior. There are negative campaign tactics geared toward changing voters’ minds about a candidate, underhanded efforts to prevent voting by leafleting poor neighborhoods with “informational fliers” that tell residents where to go to vote… on Wednesday, and logistical obstacles, such as poorly functioning equipment or under-equipped polling facilities that lead to untenably long lines in some urban locations.

Perhaps the most notorious voter suppression tactic is perfectly legal: Six states, including Florida, bar ex-felons who have served their sentences from voting for the rest of their lives. In many cases–including the 2000 election debacle–this injustice is compounded by bureaucratic incompetence; the “can’t vote” file for Florida in 2000 contained a staggering number of errors and inaccurately banned names.

In fact, while Gumbel complains equally about voter fraud and suppression, a close inspection of his many anecdotes reveals few consequential and proven examples of fraud since the 1960 presidential election. (Gumbel notes that Nixon was convinced he’d lost Illinois due to Mayor Daley’s shenanigans on Kennedy’s behalf, but he decided to forego a recount in part because of his own partisans’ grubby hands.) After that election, the now-infamous “Votomatic” punch-card system swept the country. Though it will soon be consigned to the scrap heap of electoral history, the Votomatic really was a huge step forward, replacing the far more easily manipulated paper ballots. Gumbel’s wistful, even affectionate, portrayal of the Votomatic’s rise and demise is one of the book’s most interesting chapters.

What Gumbel misses in the midst of his reverie, however, is that while fraud is a pretty rare, exotic, and highly localized species, various voter suppression techniques are far more common in the modern political ecosystem. And the impact is hardly neutral. Republican operatives have long understood that elections tend to go better when voting rates are low, particularly in urban, predominantly minority precincts. Even so, the plain low-down tactics–like the phony fliers–are far less common than logistical ones. Forcing people to vote on a work day, often when the weather is bad, and at polling stations where equipment often malfunctions, can be barriers that suppress as much–if not more than–the more blatant examples of partisan dirty tricks.

Because he presents fraud and suppression as if they occur in equal measure and to equal effect, Gumbel isn’t able to provide a clear sense of why the two parties might respond differently to solutions for our voting troubles. Nor can he explain to us why it’s important to find a voting system that significantly decreases the opportunities for voter suppression.

Of the many voting systems in use today, Gumbel devotes much of his attention to Direct Recording Election devices (DREs), the latest high-tech panacea. Some of his best original reporting zeroes in on the frenzied embrace of these DRE touch-screen voting machines, despite their many hiccups, flaws, and limitations. Virtually unknown in the 2000 election, DREs were the means by which tens of millions of voters cast their ballots in 2004.

The promise of DREs is enticing. The machines are similar to ATMs–ballot options appear on the screen, voters select (and then confirm) their choices, and then they submit their ballots, clearing the screen for the next voter. With DREs, there is no need to print tens of millions of ballots, much less discard millions of unused ones after the election. There is no waiting hours after the polls close to obtain election results. And there are no more physical ballots to sift through in the event of a recount.

But therein lies the rub. If election officials cannot perform a manual recount of ballots–if they have to rely on software and bits of digital data to “recount” votes–there will always be less than 100 percent certainty about the results. Even DREs that can produce paper trails–an expensive, but almost no-brainer modification that was recently urged by a national commission chaired by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James Baker–still fall short of the level of assurance that derives when election officials can literally put their hands on the very ballot marked by each voter.

That’s a problem because the balance we aim for while constructing and managing an election system is how to minimize bureaucratic rules and barriers that hinder the right to vote while also including sufficient safeguards to ensure integrity and credibility in our elections. However disappointed voters might personally be with a particular electoral result, we want them to trust the numbers and move on.

Despite Gumbel’s provocative title and thesis, he documents far less outright fraud than he does an unrelenting parade of petty malfeasance, bureaucratic incompetence, and rank stupidity. Theresa LePore, the miserably incapable Palm Beach County elections supervisor, is a prime example. Her infamous “butterfly ballot”–designed, Gumbel notes deliciously, ostensibly to help elderly, mostly Democratic voters by enlarging the type-size of candidate names–likely deprived Al Gore of more than 2,000 votes, and, hence, the presidency. This was no result of fraud, however. LePore, you will remember, was a Democrat.

If at the end of the day our problems really could be traced back to incompetence at every level of the voting system, it would indeed be tempting to give up and declare the situation an unsolvable mess. As Gumbel rightly notes, throughout American history we have lacked not only national standards for running elections, but statewide standards as well. As a result, we have left the functioning of elections to tens of thousands of local (usually county level) officials. Are some of these malcontents, cronies, and even outright crooks, often put and kept in place more for their partisan loyalty than their proven competence and objectivity? Absolutely. But while Katherine Harris and Theresa LePore make for good stories, they are far from representative of our country’s election officials.

All of this means that our best options lie not in pruning the ranks of election officials or in spending millions of dollars on machines that may make recounts impossible or in constructing elaborate systems to prevent fraud that does not take place, but in making the act of voting easier for the greatest number of people.

The challenges Gumbel details do indeed make voting very difficult, especially for voters in a specific demographic–and they can even affect the results of an election. Given these high stakes, Gumbel might have been expected to explore every possible alternative to the DREs and punch-card machines that dominate current elections. And yet he flits right by an elegant, deceptively simple, and proven reform that would best ensure exactly the kind of elections he promotes: vote by mail.

During the eight years in which I served as Secretary of State in Oregon, our state adopted the vote-by-mail (VBM) system, a reform that is as familiar as it is revolutionary. In the more than 200 years of conducting elections in this country, and through numerous technological innovations, the basic business model of voting has remained unchanged. To exercise his or her right to vote, the voter must go to where government authorities have the ballots. VBM reverses this premise. Ballots are sent to every registered voter approximately two weeks prior to the election. It’s then up to the voter to get the ballot back to the government.

Anyone who has ever voted absentee is familiar with the idea. Voters fill out their ballots on their own time, researching candidates or ballot initiatives if they want, and then return the ballot either through the mail or by taking it to a convenient drop-off site. Completed ballots are inserted into an inner “secrecy envelope,” which is sealed, and then placed into an outer envelope, which is signed.

The VBM system addresses nearly every concern about vote fraud, suppression, and even simple inconvenience. The results have been stunning. In the 2004 presidential election, a full 85 percent of Oregon’s registered voters cast ballots; even for lower-profile elections–school bond elections and primaries–turnout is typically twice, or even higher, that of most other states.

The cost of elections plummets when states use VBM, with no need to spend millions of dollars purchasing or repairing voting equipment. Perhaps most importantly, the integrity of ballots is greater in the VBM system because every voter signature is verified before the ballots are even tallied. This one change alone makes a VBM election significantly more secure than any polling place election in America.

Put bluntly, VBM seems to be a compelling solution to virtually every one of Gumbel’s concerns. Yet he mentions it only once, on page 221, in a disparaging aside that references a made-up statistic of 36,000 allegedly suspect votes in 2000 (unsourced, to boot). By such sleight of hand, he quickly dismisses its usefulness before returning to his familiar chorus of bemoaning almost everything about the state of American electoral affairs.

Ultimately, Gumbel does us the service of highlighting the myriad shortcomings of our voting system, and puncturing our self-righteousness by noting how abysmally short we fall of the standards our elections observers attempt to impose on other countries. But when it comes to proposing the best way to balance our competing values of ballot access and ballot integrity, Gumbel punts. The book’s penultimate sentence reads: “If they [the Democratic and Republican parties] want to stack, rig, or steal an election, and they have the means and the infrastructural control necessary to pull it off, they will almost certainly do so, whatever rules are in place.”

Nonsense. His own book illustrates that elections are far more likely to be secure and aboveboard today than at any other time in American history; systemic election fraud is a rare exception, hardly the rule. And while it’s true that efforts to suppress votes abound, there is no evidence that they are more prevalent (much less more effective) than in the past. Besides, even if fraud and suppression were on the rise, a voting system exists that could deal with those issues and render them largely moot. In such an entertaining and well-reported book, the only shame is that Gumbel wasn’t willing to think about solutions in addition to the problem.

Phil Keisling, former Oregon Secretary of State, is a vice president with Hepieric, an Oregon-based IT and software development services firm.

Phil Keisling, former Oregon Secretary of State, is a vice president with Hepieric, an Oregon-based IT and software development services firm.

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Phil Keisling

Phil Keisling, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, served as Oregon secretary of state (1991–99) and is currently the director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University.