Whats Better

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2004-08-30 Print this article Print

?"> Is voting absentee really better? In Florida particularly, theres a long history of absentee votes being discarded or manipulated. Hacking the absentee vote can be decidedly low-tech. [ital]The Miami Herald[end] won a Pulitzer Prize for showing how fraudulent absentee votes swung a 1997 mayoral election in Miami. In one of the most colorful scams, campaign workers armed with boxes of absentee ballots paid homeless citizens $10 a vote to support their candidate. In that case, an examination of witness signatures uncovered the fraud. Now, Florida has eliminated the requirement for a witness signature.
On the plus side, Florida law now makes it easier than ever for honest voters to cast absentee ballots.
Organizations in other states, such as the Campaign for Verifiable Voting in Maryland, have recommended voting absentee as a way citizens can make sure their votes count. "This is definitely the best way to go," suggests the TrueMajority Web site. "Once youve mailed in your ballot, youll know youve voted no matter what happens on Election Day." But that assumption could be mistaken. "Absentee voting puts the entire burden of getting the ballot in correct form on the voter," Jones says. A voter who does everything right can be reasonably sure his vote will be counted, but an easily confused elderly voter might be better off using a touch screen machine and asking for help from poll workers, he says. Some of the ways the absentee vote system can break down:
  • Ballots can be lost or damaged in the mail.
  • Ballots can be ignored. In Floridas Broward County, investigators who had heard stories of widespread negligence in the elections office found 268 uncounted absentee ballots from a September 2002 primary in the back of a file drawer.
  • In Florida and most other places, absentee ballots are machine-readable optical scan ballots. Stray marks, food stains, odd colored inks or other problems can prevent ballots from being read properly by the automated system.
  • When ballots require manual interpretation, that "opens the door to subjective judgment, and canvassing boards have been known to be biased," Jones says.
  • Absentee voters miss out on the chance to correct errors such as voting for two competing candidates. When optical scan machines are used at the polling place, such problems can be detected, allowing the voter to complete a new ballot. While the computerization of vote counting isnt really new, having voters enter their choices directly into a computer is relatively novel. After a punch card or optical scan ballot is read into a computer, the paper record remains to be used in the event of a recount. But most of the touch screen systems currently deployed print only summary vote totals, not a record of each vote as it is cast. Next Page: Ban of touch screens without paper print-outs in California.

    David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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