- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2001

America's voting system is "deeply flawed" and in dire need of federal regulation, according to a team of research heavyweights from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology. But well-intentioned though the recommendations may be, even gifted scholars sometimes get it wrong.
Between 4 million and 6 million votes were "lost" in the 2000 election, the researchers concluded after six months of investigation. Registration "problems," broadly defined, reportedly kept between 1.5 million and 3 million citizens from casting a vote, while 1.5 million to 2 million ballots were unmarked, somehow spoiled or too ambiguous to count. Long lines and inconvenient hours at the polls, meanwhile, supposedly dissuaded another 500,000 to 1.2 million voters from fulfilling their civic duty.
"We are concerned about the potential long-term effects of such problems on Americans' confidence in their own electoral process," the report declares, while detailing a $400-million reform plan that represents a 50-percent increase in election expenditures.
The Florida debacle certainly heightened awareness of balloting blunders.
But the rate of so-called residual votes nationwide has, in fact, remained largely constant over the past four presidential elections. And the researchers acknowledge that neither Florida nor Palm Beach wracked up the most "uncounted" votes in the 2000 presidential contest. (Illinois, Georgia and South Carolina ranked worse.) Moreover, few elections actually turn on "lost votes." Congressional contests throughout the 1990s were virtual locks for incumbents who typically garnered more than 60 percent of the vote.
Perhaps, then, it was the election of Republican George Bush that provoked all this academic alarm.
The MIT-Caltech team principally evaluated voting technologies, intentionally isolating the mechanics of elections from the myriad social dynamics that underlie so much of the undercount. It is potentially useful, of course, for election administrators to know that optical scan equipment yields fewer residual votes than punch cards or direct recording electronics. But to the extent that citizen behavior not machines is the source of the problem, the distinction is all too crude.
Another reform package unveiled this week by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, meanwhile, emphasizes boosting turnout by allowing felons to vote and designating Election Day as a national holiday.
The universities' research team instead prescribes a "new architecture" for voting technology and advocate improvements in the administration of the registration database both of which could indeed reduce the rate of residual votes. To what degree and at what cost, however, is the pertinent calculation.
The regulatory scheme the team has fashioned is more dubious: mandatory standards for voting technology and federal oversight of the election process. Said Caltech researcher R. Michael Alvarez: "States have, in many ways, failed in their responsibilities." A Federal Bureau of Elections, in other words.
On this point, however, the U.S. Constitution is quite clear. States alone are responsible for running elections. And absent more compelling evidence that the will of voters is being subverted, any further usurpation of state authority would be unwarranted.
The decline in state and local powers has been a primary feature of 20th century politics. If there is a crisis of voter confidence, it has been provoked less by lost votes than the alienation from self-government inherent in this incessant federal power grab. The more likely result of federalizing all elections, therefore, is less citizen participation, not more.
Consider, for example, the utter failure of the federal "motor-voter" law mandating registration procedures. Thousands more citizens have indeed been registered to vote. But there has been no concomitant increase in turnout.
Instead, the law has magnified the administrative burden on local election officials whose data bases increasingly are populated by registrants who don't go to the polls.
Maximizing turnout and minimizing ballot errors are, obviously, important goals. Voting is how we aggregate our preferences. It is the sacrament of civil religion that represents our shared values. But the research team acknowledges that voting technology is "evolving quickly," that "many new machines are in development" and that local election administrators are, in fact, demanding more rigorous performance standards. As has been demonstrated time and again, federal intervention would do more to inhibit than advance this innovation.
If there is a lesson from Florida to draw, it is in recognizing the danger to democracy of circumventing state and local governments' management of elections. Absent criminality, solutions should emerge from the political process, not be imposed by courts or regulatory agencies. Accountability, the cornerstone of citizen participation, is greatest at the local and state level.
The results of the Voting Technology Project are drawing attention in Congress. Better machines might indeed have mitigated some of the troubles with the Florida vote. But the worst of the problem, what really was lost, was faith in the political process. And the same mistake should not be repeated on a national scale.

Michael Barnhart is a public-affairs consultant and instructor of political science. Diane Katz is an editorial writer for the Detroit News.

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