Will eager voters turn out in droves, come Nov. 2?
Maybe not. A group of social and behavioral scientists, legal scholars, cyber-security experts, academics, public-interest advocates and election officials recently determined that the American system of voting is a mess.
"What can go wrong? Everything," said Susan Inmann, director of elections for Pulaski County in Arkansas and a member of an 18-person panel assembled last week by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to study the challenges of the polling place.
"The system is a Rubik's Cube inside a maze," observed George Guilbert, who manages elections for Guilford County in North Carolina.
But the panel envisioned voting in an ideal world, far from the hanging chads and drawn-out results of the 2000 election.
"Central to the election of the political leadership in any democratic country is a voting process that confers legitimacy on its political leaders and maximizes public participation, trust and confidence," they wrote in a collective treatise released Tuesday in conjunction with the National Science Foundation.
Reality was not too far off. After mulling over the possibilities for two days, the panel concluded that "the American system of voting is broadly vulnerable to error and abuse" and called for "a crash course of study and reform."
The group recommended a research road map centering on the viability of voting technology, accountability mechanisms, productive election administration and the voters themselves -- who must be treated with care.
"There is no 'average' voter," the AAAS study noted. "People engage the voting system with different levels of education and technical skills, cultural background, languages, accessibility issues or socioeconomic circumstances."
Still, the group set out to define the relationship between voters and the voting system itself and concluded that "the voter is the central stakeholder in the system."
Voter mystique has intrigued other researchers recently, as well.
The National Annenberg Election Survey, for example, released one study in mid-September that found that men are more likely than women to understand issue positions of presidential candidates. Another study revealed that people who watch late-night TV had better overall political knowledge than those who simply turned off their sets and went bed.
Easy Voter, a California-based consortium of literacy and voter-advocacy groups determined that first-time voters had "performance anxiety" when heading to the polls because they were uncertain of the protocol, couldn't read the ballot or felt that "voting was like taking a test."
The AAAS panel hopes such trends change, particularly as voters -- timid and otherwise -- face complicated electronic voting devices or future systems based on the Internet.
"There seems to be a general consensus that we're moving to a vote-anywhere system that will give citizens a very wide range of ways to participate," said Michael Traugott, a political scientist at the University of Michigan and a panel member.
The panel recommended future research to determine "what factors discourage or encourage" voters -- right down to lengthy lines, long waits, media coverage of the voting process and voter "skill level" when meeting new technology at the polls.
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