EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT/Making the (up) grade
It’s embarrassing enough to find your electoral ballots unexpectedly pregnant, but how would you feel if you discovered that your chads were hanging? In digging for votes following the 2000 presidential election, Democrats uncovered those physical deformities on paper ballots cast in Florida, a state not known for its pregnancy rate or anything hanging except coconuts.
Florida discovered that using paper ballots can result in either under-voting (not punching the ballot hard enough) or over-voting (punching it too many times). Although that problem has existed for as long as paper ballots have been used, it became the centerpiece of the disputes over the presidential election results. The sunshine state was left scrambling for its dignity, with its voters being portrayed as a bunch of Mr. Magoos.
To ensure they would not have a repeat performance in the 2002 mid-term elections, Florida officials had an epiphany of electronic proportions and purchased touch-screen voting machines to replace their antiquated paper-ballot system. Miami-Dade County, the epicenter of the 2000 ballot bungling, spent $25 million on electronic voting machines alone.
Despite the new equipment, the state hit a few bumps during the September primary, when the results were delayed a week because of minor voting machine problems and insufficient poll worker training, especially in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. To ensure the November elections would run more smoothly, Miami-Dade mobilized about 3,500 of its employees.
That is one of the reasons why the county spent an estimated $3 million conducting the election, or twice as much as normal, according to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy. But it still took poll workers an average of four to five hours to set up the touch-screen machines — a process the report says should have taken about 90 minutes.
And, therein lies the hitch: We continue to think of technology as something separate from us, a virtual solution to a problem. By now, we should know that technology will be worthless without proper training.
We also know that some people simply aren’t comfortable using computers — a problem affecting the voting process beyond Florida. In Montgomery County, Md., more than 200 election judges quit this year after problems surfaced during the county’s first general election using touch-screen voting machines. Many of the county’s poll workers also retired when they realized they had to learn to operate the new machines.
Today, 18 percent of America’s voting jurisdictions are using electronic voting machines, and there are estimates that figure will reach 80 percent in six years. With $3.86 billion now available from the federal government over the next four years to buy new election equipment, let’s make sure that training and educating our voters and poll workers is the first upgrade we make.