Here is the one good thing to come out of the Florida fiasco of 2000: This time we have advance warning of the problems that might await us on Election Day.
So how do we avoid another mess? Here are some issues, and some fixes.
Touch-screen voting machines without paper trails. To have a recount, you need something to recount. But what if newfangled voting equipment leaves no record of how ballots were cast?
Dick Polman, a fine political writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, recently reminded his readers of a January legislative election in Broward County -- poor Florida! -- in which touch-screen machines failed to record the votes of 134 people who had cast ballots. The winner had a margin of only 12 votes.
As Polman noted: "Under state law, a hand recount was required -- yet there was nothing to recount, because touch-screens don't produce paper receipts."
If you thought the controversy over Florida was bad the last time, imagine another excruciatingly close election in which there is evidence of error -- and no way of tracing its source. Is this inventive nation incapable of producing voting equipment with the efficiency of the touch-screen and the security of a paper trail? Failure to solve this problem would be pretty embarrassing for a country that casts itself as the world leader in both technology and democracy.
Phony felons. One of the outrages of 2000 was the creation of a list of "possible felons" who were knocked off Florida's voter rolls. Under Florida law, felons can't vote. Thanks to the work of Greg Palast, a left-of-center investigative writer, the public learned that the list of felons that the state gave to local election officials was defective. Local officials were supposed to do additional checking, but some were more diligent than others. Given that the list of "possible felons" was disproportionately from minority groups, minority voters had a much higher chance of being kicked off the rolls.
How many people were unfairly denied the right to vote under this program? A computer analysis by the Palm Beach Post in 2001 found that of the 19,398 potential voters knocked off the lists, more than 14,600 matched a felon by name, birth date, race and gender. That left 4,798 unaccounted for. Of the rest, the newspaper's analysis found that at least 1,100 eligible voters were "wrongly purged from the rolls." Bush was awarded Florida by a margin of 537 votes over Gore.
Most states do not permanently deny former felons the right to vote, and the few that still do should abandon a practice so often rooted in a racist past. More urgently, states and localities need to make sure that voters who were never felons don't get caught up in a voter purge. Fortunately, there are election officials in Florida wary of a new list of potential felons they recently received from the state.
"I have no desire to move forward quickly," Deborah Clark, the Pinellas County supervisor of elections, told the St. Petersburg Times last week. "I would rather move forward cautiously. We've had enough bad experience with this project, with information we have received." Indeed.
Badly designed ballots and the straight-ticket punch. Give Florida a break for a moment. In 2000, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis, Chicago had the most error-ridden presidential election of any U.S. city. Most striking: The error rate in Cook County (which is mostly Chicago) skyrocketed from 2.7 percent in 1996 to 6.2 percent in 2000.
No, Chicago voters didn't get dumber. What happened is that in 1997 the Illinois legislature abolished the straight-ticket punch, under which voters could cast votes for every one of their party's candidates by making a single hole on a punch card. That was a corrective to Chicago's tendency to cram its ballot with way too many contests. As the Tribune noted, there were 456 perforated squares on ballots in 2000. It's a miracle the error rate wasn't higher.
What's needed are either much shorter ballots or a return to the straight-ticket option. Don't worry, independents, ways could be found to make it easy for you to split your ticket.
Okay, I know, the straight-ticket punch is not on many reformers' wish lists. But let's fix the other problems fast. This would be about the worst moment in our history to have the Supreme Court pick the president two times in a row.