America's Election Snafus: 2001-2002

Election Problems

Accepting the Unacceptable

America trained its eyes on Florida in the weeks following the 2000 election. The razor-thin margin between the two candidates made glaringly visible many of the problems that had probably been evident in prior elections. Because those elections weren’t as close, the problems had been tolerated and the disenfranchisement accepted as business as usual.

This year, in the first national election to follow, the warning signs are once again in evidence. Many problems have been diagnosed in primary elections, and far more voters will go to the polls in November. That increase in voter turnout could provide the additional pressure to aggravate these electoral problems to the breaking point.

Misprinted ballots, poorly trained poll workers and malfunctioning voting machines are but a few of the problems that plagued voters during the 2002 primaries. Officials knew that they would have to deal with new districts, new technology, new laws and new equipment. With so much to deal with, the fact that many jurisdictions were not ready for 2002 primaries may have been unavoidable. For officials to be unprepared again on November 5th is unacceptable.

Never Again – Until Next Year

The problems — and the public outcry — in Florida and other states during the 2000 presidential election convinced some officials to adopt sweeping changes in an effort to prevent a repeat. Some jurisdictions were more successful than others. This mixed track record is one reason why many states have laws to deal with backup voting systems. In Florida, for instance, it is state law that any machine-related problem should not interfere with voting. County election supervisors are required to have some backup means of voting in place in the event that technology jeopardizes the right to vote. This law was flouted on a grand scale in September 2002.

Looking back at some of the problems observed during this year’s primary season, jurisdictions that committed resources and insight to voter problems were the most successful. Money spent on new technology — without the necessary commitment to poll worker training, voter education and political leadership — sometimes did not produce a positive effect. In many cases, the problems profiled here could have been solved if policymakers had used a comprehensive approach to these issues. In some situations, this could mean implementing new technologies gradually so they can be effectively implemented and understood. (Indeed, Los Angeles will be dropping punch cards and using paper ballots in 2004 before transitioning to a touch screen system.) The right approach also means thoroughly training poll workers for real-world applications of these new technologies.

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