By November 2006 the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) (aka Leave No Voting Company Behind) 1 tidal wave had washed almost completely across America, destroying election integrity and trust in its wake, and brought to us by the same "leaders" who brought us war in Iraq; a war on drugs; the wholesale destruction of children, families, and marriage; torture; gulags; reinstituted indentured servitude and debtors prisons; and incurred a national debt of nearly $9 trillion dollars that is increasing by $1.7 billion a day.
One need not read far into the tabulation of problems by VotersUnite, or by the Equal Justice Foundation, to realize electronic voting has been a massive failure. The innumerable problems, in many cases initiated by requirements of HAVA, has led to often extreme distrust of voting machines in polling places. Nowhere is this more apparent than in November 2006 election in Riverside County, California, one of the first counties to switch to electronic voting.
In many cases, dysfunctional voting machines and incompetent or dishonest election officials have led to outrageous waits for voters at polling places, e.g., in several Colorado counties in November 2006 the last voters were not able to cast a ballot until 1:30 AM the next morning at voting centers . In some cases, notably Ohio, election officials apparently deliberately put too few electronic voting machines in minority or Democratic neighborhoods, forcing many potential voters to turn away rather than wait in line for many hours to vote. And, if citizens are able to vote at a precinct, the innumerable problems with electronic voting machines (documented here) and on many other web sites leaves voters justifiably uncertain if their vote was counted and, if counted, counted correctly?
In order to avoid the lines at polling places, and with well-founded mistrust in touchscreen (DRE) voting machines, an ever-increasing number of voters have taken to using absentee ballots in the correct belief that a hand-marked paper ballot is more durable and accurate than an ephemeral entry on a computer screen.
But absentee mail ballots are still counted by electronic voting machines, only now it is done in the proverbial "back room" largely out of public view, which suits embattled election officials and voting machine manufacturers just fine.
While election officials are being pummeled by public distrust of electronic voting, they are, as in the past, going in the wrong direction. Despite an unbroken record over the past decade of making elections worse, the apparent stampede of these simpletons is to propose all-mail ballot elections, as has been done in Oregon. The Oregon experiment is reviewed, and not favorably, by Prof. Melody Rose and Thomas Hargrove. But far be it from our apparently retarded election officials to be deterred by failures elsewhere. Besides, the increased use of absentee ballots makes it appear to them that it is "the will of the people" to have mail ballot elections.
And we certainly wouldn't want to return to the old-fashioned method of hand marking and hand counting paper ballots at our local precinct that worked so well for so many years. That would make the waste of public money and distrust in electronic voting machines too painfully obvious.
1. It is worth remarking that HAVA was sponsored by Congressman Bob Ney (R Ohio), who later pled guilty to felony charges of conspiracy and making false statements in connection with the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal. Also, Diebold is headquartered in Ohio and then-CEO Wally O'Dell was an infamous supporter of Republican candidates.
In early 2006 I was asked by a local election official to tabulate the problems I'd seen with mail ballot elections and absentee balloting. Obviously, conscientious election officials do their best to minimize these problems. However, the "less conscientious" do their best to simply hide "mistakes" and all too often we've encountered, and document in the chapter Lies, Damn Lies, And Mail In Elections, incompetent or corrupt election officials who ignore or are ignorant of the problems listed here.
It is also impossible for election officials to defend against and prevent all the problems listed in a given election using mail ballots. Thus, while the limited use of absentee ballots may be necessary, their usage should be strictly controlled and the closest possible scrutiny applied to all ballots sent and received by mail.
As noted, all-mail ballot elections have been widely touted, but have not been as successful as politicians and election officials would like us to believe. In no case should all-mail elections be used, especially in special district elections involving developers, or other elections where large dollar or tax issues are at stake.
For additional information on this problem see the report by Prof. Douglas Jones (PDF) on tests conducted in Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona. An example of this problem in an election is described for the November 2003 election in Garfield County, Colorado.
In addition to the issues outlined above, counting mail ballots with electronic voting machines using optical scan methods leads to another set of problems. The more common ones known are listed below.
Note that there is a considerable difference in the requirements for a machine to scan a few hundred ballots, with just one or two ballot styles, in a precinct compared with the necessity of accurately and reliably scanning hundreds of thousands of ballots, with tens or hundreds of ballot styles, in mail in elections. An optical scanner that performs flawlessly in a precinct is much more likely to fail, or produce incorrect results when used to count ballots in the more demanding production environment of a mail in/absentee election.
However, as the ballots are counted in the "back room" at the county or city clerk's office, a concerted effort is often made to cover up problems and only the most obvious and egregious errors become public.
Marking devices, i.e., pencil or pen, wrong ink color, mark intensity, etc., on paper ballots not recognized and votes are not counted by scanner. For an excellent review of such problems see the Statement regarding the optical mark-sense tabulators in Maricopa County, Arizona by Prof. Douglas Jones.
Scanner heads become dirty or scratched and introduce reading errors. For example, voters at home may use correction fluid on their ballot that may wipe off on the read head of the scanner, or food gets spilled on the ballot that transfers to the scanner. This is a particular problem with mail elections where tens or hundreds of thousands of ballots may be scanned with a single machine.
Since 2002 another requirement has been added to the voting process by the Help America Vote Act. That federal law requires that provision be made for handicapped voters to be able to vote unassisted.
The most common reason given to justify the necessity for an all-mail ballot election is lower cost. Aside from the point that the primary requirement for election officials is to provide an open, honest, and secure election, there is little evidence that an all-mail ballot election costs anymore than a well-run election done in polling places.
However, the typical cost comparison between a polling place election and a mail ballot election ignores the facts that a polling place election today is burdened with the HAVA mandates that every polling place have at least one expensive electronic voting machine that allows handicapped voters to cast a ballot unassisted, as well as provisional balloting that commonly requires at least one extra election judge in each polling place. These federal mandates are the reason a polling place election now appears to cost more. Table 1 shows a comparison of costs typically incurred in polling place and all-mail ballot elections.
Most election districts now also have early voting in polling-place elections, an additional expense. Further, most election districts also allow "no excuse" absentee balloting as well and roughly a third of voters now use that method even when polling places are available.
If the extremely expensive, and demonstrably unreliable and untrustworthy electronic voting machines were eliminated, and hand-counted paper ballots used, then the cost differences would disappear. Even with all the current impedimenta the cost difference is only about 20-25% more for a polling place + absentee + early voting + provisional ballot election, depending on whose numbers are used.
There appears to be little reason for early voting when voters can vote absentee, and that expense could easily be eliminated without significant inconvenience to voters and at considerable savings for the cost of an election.
I would also advocate returning to a requirement that a voter appear in person to obtain an absentee ballot. The current "no excuse" method of writing or calling to get a ballot is alarmingly insecure, particularly coupled with mail-in voter registration, as it currently is. Having the voter appear in person is infinitely more secure and saves the costs of mailing as well.
The other chestnut that is inevitably trotted out to justify, and ignore the obvious dangers of mail ballot elections, is the claim that they increase voter turnout. I have looked at that claim using election statistics from 1992 through 2006 provided by the El Paso County, Colorado, county clerk. [Note: Table 2 is reproduced below.]
The results from 21 elections are summarized in Table 2. There are 4 presidential races, 3 off-year congressional races, 5 coordinated county elections, 7 primary races, and 2 municipal elections included in the summary. Colorado law currently prohibits mail ballot elections in federal races so the three mail ballot elections included in Table 2 involve county and municipal elections only. But there are enough of each type of election to draw some preliminary conclusions.
Presidential elections These elections are usually of most interest to voters and the turnout, ranging from a low of 59% to a high of 81% in the four presidential races in Table 2 reflects that interest. Voter turnout in presidential elections is always higher than in any other type of election and these are always polling place elections under current Colorado law. Percent of voters who used absentee ballots ranges from a low of 9% before "no excuse" absentee voting began circa 1993, to 25% in the 2004 election and 35% in the 2000 election after "no excuse" absentee balloting was introduced.
Congressional elections Off-year congressional elections combined with state legislator races are also of great interest to voters. In the three races in Table 2 voter turnout ranges from a low of 46% to a high of 51%. Again, these are polling place elections under Colorado law. When "no excuse" absentee voting was initially permitted only 14% of voters used that method. As "no excuse" absentee voting was implemented, and distrust of electronic voting machines grew, 30-31% of voters now use an absentee ballot.
Coordinated elections These involve election of county officials and often tax or local issues. Five coordinated elections are included in Table 2 including one all-mail election in 2001. Voter turnout in coordinated elections ranges from a low of 19% to a high of 36%. The all-mail ballot election, with a turnout of 31%, falls in the middle of this range. The use of absentee ballots in these elections is consistently rather low, ranging from 8-12% when "no excuse" absentee voting first began, increasing to only 14-21% after it became common.
Municipal and special district elections It is in these types of elections that use of all-mail balloting is most dangerous. The numbers of eligible voters is smaller, special interests are likely involved, e.g. developers, and the outcomes can usually be more readily changed by differences of a few hundred votes. Two of these elections, both mail ballot elections, are listed in Table 2. Numerous problems with the April 2003 Colorado Springs mail-ballot election are detailed elsewhere. Turnout was a modest 37% for that election, which had a large number of candidates for city offices and a tax issue on the ballot. The December 2006 school district election had only a 20% turnout.
Primary elections These occur in August and voter apathy is apparent in the five primary elections in Table 2, which seldom have any real contests in heavily-conservative El Paso County. Turnout ranges from a pathetic 7% to 21%. Even a hotly contested Republican primary in 2006 for a congressional seat only provoked a turnout of barely 17%. When voters do participate in primary elections they now tend to vote more often by absentee ballot than in other types of elections. After "no excuse" absentee voting was introduced 22% of votes were mail ballots in the 2000 primary, increasing to 40% in 2006. It is also worth noting that electioneering was quite successfully used to influence those who voted absentee in the August 2006 primary election.
Clearly, voter turnout is influenced more strongly by the type of election, with presidential and congressional elections always drawing the largest turnouts, than by whether voting is based on polling place elections or mail ballot elections are used. Allowing "no excuse" absentee voting after 1993 has clearly increased the use of that method, with concomitant increases in the ease of casting fraudulent ballots and the virtual certainty that is now being done in many elections.
One can't logically ascribe any voter's desire to avoid standing in line for hours at a polling place and, thus, choosing to use an absentee ballot as a matter of "convenience." Instead, the increased use of absentee ballots appears to be the direct result of malfeasance by election officials and voting machine manufacturers whose expensive, unreliable, and untrustworthy voting machines have made polling place voting more difficult and time consuming, and deservedly increased public distrust and ire over election misconduct by orders of magnitude.
It seems obvious that, at best, misguided efforts to increase voter turnout by making it more "convenient" to cast a ballot by mail have radically increased the probability and ease of election fraud. That contravenes the entire basis for an election and undermines the foundations of our democracy.
With the legions of scandals surrounding electronic voting machines, which are also used in a "backroom" to count mail ballots, public trust in fair and honest elections is plummeting. All-mail ballot elections have the appearance of simply one more effort by election officials to hide their mistakes and the problems with electronic voting machines, further increasing public distrust.
By Mail 2
District 11 recall 5
3. Precinct elections include voting at a polling place or precinct, early voting, and absentee voting by mail. All mail in elections are done exclusively by mail and ballots are only sent to "active" voters, i.e., those who voted in the last federal election.
4. Registered voters in the City of Colorado Springs, which comprises roughly two thirds of the residents of El Paso County. Note that the city clerk only lists "active" voters as "registered" voters (in parentheses) in her tabulation when the election is by mail balloting.