Geoffrey M. Vaughan is Professor of Political Science at Assumption University.
America and the world are watching in horror or amusement as the New York City Democratic primary results continue to be delayed. Much of the problem is due to the complexity of the ranked-choice voting system they are using. But counting votes simply seems to be a problem in this country.
Americans are losing faith in their electoral process. More to the point, they are losing faith in voting and the tallying of votes.
Fully 55% of Republicans tell pollsters that the 2020 election was stolen. A corresponding 33% of Democrats thought the 2016 election was illegitimate. What makes us think the numbers will be better—regardless of who wins—four years from now?
House Democrats passed a major overhaul to the nation’s electoral system, essentially federalizing the rules about times and places for voting. HR-1, the “For the People Act,” addresses early voting, vote-by-mail, registration and removal of voters from the rolls. It introduces new rules on campaign financing and even requires presidential candidates reveal ten years of tax returns.
This massive effort to change American elections was stopped in the Senate by another voting procedure that large numbers now distrust, the filibuster. West Virginia’s Joe Manchin has proposed a compromise bill that would add voter ID requirements and remove the public funding of campaigns, among other provisions. No one knows where that will go, if anywhere, but it is clear that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the way Americans vote.
Large majorities support voter ID laws, so many that Democrats are now backtracking on some of their opposition to the most basic provisions. People are concerned about the way ballots are cast, as they should be. But they should also be concerned about how the ballots are counted.
Recent Rasmussen polling shows that majorities of Americans support election audits. The results break down along partisan lines for now, but there is a strong sense that people don’t trust the tallies. How could they? Counting ballots in this country is a mess.
American ballots are almost unique in the world for trying to conduct multiple elections at the same time. In the city where I live there were seven different elections held on the same day, from the presidency to register of probate. The ballot the previous year for city officials conducted four different elections, two of which allowed the voter to choose as many as six candidates. State ballots measure 8½ x 17 inches, city ballots 8½ x 14.
Most other democracies in the world hold one election at a time. A ballot will be one piece of paper with the names of candidates for the one office. The voter marks the ballot. When counting, workers put the ballots in different piles, one for each candidate. Representatives for the candidates, or the candidates themselves, can watch that everything is done properly. Easy.
You can’t do this with an American ballot. There are too many elections going on at once. How could you count the votes for all these elections when they are on one piece of paper? You don’t. Machines and computers do the counting because there is no way to put that one piece of paper into several piles.
We might have thought the national embarrassment of dimpled and hanging chads of the 2000 Florida recount were behind us. Not so. Many precincts replaced mechanical punch-card machines with computers, only to find these suspected of manipulation. Even if these new systems aren’t or haven’t been manipulated in the past, they could be. High profile ransomware attacks don’t inspire confidence in the nation’s cyber security infrastructure.
More likely than actual fraud is the perception of fraud. It is easy for people to think that something nefarious has gone on when the procedures for counting votes, a process that should be simple, is so Byzantine. Set aside the recount in Maricopa county, Arizona. Even under normal conditions California law allows up to 30 days to count votes simply because it is so complicated.
The Constitution mandates the date of only the presidential election, not the others. The same day is used to save money and, most significantly, to boost voter turnout.
When state and especially local elections are held at any other time of year the turnout tends to be abysmal, down in the low teens and even single digits. That’s not good, for all sorts of reasons. Not only is this not a sign of a healthy democracy, it also allows special interests to overwhelm the small numbers. This is how, for example, school boards have been taken over by radicals, as many parents are now just discovering.
Getting more people to turn out for elections is generally a good thing, so having them all on one day isn’t such a bad idea. But the ballots have created conditions for mistrust. You don’t have to buy into any conspiracy theories to feel unease about the way votes are counted in this country. There are too many opportunities for human error alone. And in a highly charged environment, errors look intentional.
Would a more transparent way of counting ballots solve all our problems? No, but anything that recovers trust will be good for the system. And it wouldn’t require the likely unconstitutional changes the Democrats are pushing.
The main barrier to solving this problem, unfortunately, is not design. There is a lot of money to be made in contracts for voting machines and software and a lot of grandstanding opportunities for politicians. Because of the clumsy mechanism for recounting, challenges can keep a candidate in the news for weeks or even months beyond election day.
Making the ballots easier to count is in no one’s interest, well, except for the voters.