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Elections 2004

U.S. Election Procedures
Michael W. Traugott

In general, American voters have the opportunity to participate in more elections than the citizens of most other democracies. Some Americans may have five or six opportunities a year to vote, with each ballot filled with different choices for different offices at various levels of government. Because of its federal system, in which both the national government and the state governments have distinct powers, election day in the United States is actually the occasion for a series of simultaneous state and local elections, each held under separate administrative procedures.

In the U.S. political system, many offices are elective, and beyond those, there are numerous decisions about financial support for education and for state and local services such as parks and highways that are made by the public at the polls. And more and more policy decisions are being made through these voter referenda and initiatives. Some political scientists have explained that the frequency of elections may help to explain declining voter turnout in the United States over the last 50 years. Americans also select most partisan candidates in primary elections, which are actually political party functions that are run by election administrators.

The Voting Process

Because of the local nature of U.S. elections, then, there are thousands of election administrators responsible for organizing and conducting them, including tabulating and certifying the results. These officials have an important and complex set of tasks setting the dates for elections, certifying the eligibility of candidates, registering eligible voters and preparing voter rolls, selecting voting devices, designing ballots, organizing a large temporary work force to administer the voting on election day, and then tabulating the votes and certifying the results.

Traditionally, American elections have not had particularly close outcomes. Most offices on a ballot are local, and election district boundaries frequently have been drawn by the party in power, based on historical voting patterns, in ways that make them safe for one political party or the other. However, there obvious and recent exceptions. The outcome of the 2000 U.S. presidential election the drawn-out contest to determine a winner in the closest presidential election in American history exposed Americans to many of these administrative issues for the first time.

Voting in the United States is a two-step process. There is no national list of eligible voters, so a citizen must first qualify by becoming registered. Citizens register to vote in conjunction with the place they live; if they move to a new location, they typically have to register again. Registration systems have been designed to eliminate fraud. But the procedures for registering voters vary from state to state. In times past registration procedures were sometimes used to discourage certain citizens from participating in elections. Recently, there has been a tendency to ease registration requirements, and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (the "Motor Voter" law) makes it possible for people to register to vote at the time they renew their drivers' licenses.

One of the most important functions for election officials is ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote is on the registration lists but that no one who is unqualified is included. Generally, local election officials err on the side of keeping people on the lists even if they have not voted recently, rather than eliminating potentially eligible voters. When people appear at the polls whose names are not on the lists, they are now given a provisional ballot to record their votes. Their eligibility is subsequently reviewed before their votes are recorded.

The Role of Election Administrators

In the United States, an election is an administrative exercise conducted locally on a fixed budget whose purpose is to measure the preferences of eligible voters in an accurate and timely manner. This means that election administrators typically a county or city clerk have a daunting task. They are responsible for registering voters all year long and for determining who is eligible to vote in a particular election. They have to design the ballots for each election, making sure that all certified candidates are listed and all issues up for decision are correctly worded. An they must try to make the ballot as simple and as clear as possible.

Currently, there are no national standards for ballot forms or voting devices. Typically, election officials have to provide for ballots in multiple languages and sometimes even in different forms. In some jurisdictions, the order of the candidates and parties has to be randomly assigned. Ultimately, local election officials have to select the specific voting machines to use, and the ballots must match the devices. As a response to problems that arose in the state of Florida's election for the presidency in 2000, Congress passed legislation providing financial assistance to states and counties to adopt the most modern and reliable voting procedures.

In between elections, these officials are responsible for the storage and maintenance of the voting devices, tasks that are usually performed by contractors rather than regular staff. And one of their most difficult tasks is to hire and train a large temporary staff for one long session of work (typically 10 to 15 hours) on election day.

When voting equipment or ballot forms change between elections, this training process can be even more daunting. The logistics of moving machines and hiring and training staff is sometimes so consuming that the checking of voters' eligibility is left to volunteers supplied by the major political parties. Since the volunteers are usually representatives of the political parties, there are occasional, if inevitable, disagreements about the conduct of some local elections.

The second step in the voting process is public access to a ballot. For most eligible voters, this has meant going to a polling place near their homes to cast a vote. Across the nation, there is wide variation both in terms of the size of precincts geographically and the number of persons eligible and registered to vote in each one.

Decisions about equipment and ballot forms are made at the local level because these systems are paid for locally. Thus, the way that people vote the kinds of equipment they use and how well it is maintained is related to the socioeconomic status and the tax base of their locale. Since local tax revenue also funds schools, police and fire services, and parks and recreation facilities, investments in voting technology often have been given low priority.

A wide variety of voting devices are available in the United States, and the landscape of voting technologies is continuously changing. Today, there are very few places where regular voting takes place with paper ballots marked with an "X" next to a candidate's name, as was done in the past, but many computerized systems still depend on paper ballots on which circles are filled in or lines are connected. These ballots are then scanned mechanically to have the votes recorded.

Many jurisdictions still use "lever" machines, on which voters turn a small lever next to the names of the candidates they prefer or the side of an issue they support. Their votes are recorded at the end of this process by pulling a large lever. These machines have not been manufactured in more than 30 years, so they are especially difficult and expensive to maintain. As a result, they are slowly being phased out.

Another very common device is a "punch-card" machine. The ballot is either on a card where holes or punches are made next to a candidate's name, or the card is inserted into a holder that lines up with a ballot image, and then the holes are punched. This is the form of ballot that caused controversy in counting votes for the 2000 U.S. presidential election in Florida. As a result of that situation, punch-card devices are also being phased out.

The current trend is toward adoption of direct recording electronic (DRE) devices, which have computerized touch screens that resemble automated banking machines. Although there has been considerable discussion of voting by computer or the Internet to make the process easier and one such system has been tried in an Arizona primary security specialists are working to refine these systems, and they are not yet in widespread use.

A significant change in balloting in recent years has been adopting procedures that make ballots available to voters before election day. This trend started with provisions for absentee ballots, which are issued to voters who anticipate being away from their home (and their voting place) on election day. Some locales gradually liberalized this provision, allowing citizens to register as "permanent absentee voters" and routinely have a ballot mailed to their home.

Another new provision is "early voting," for which voting machines are set up in shopping malls and other public places for up to three weeks before election day. Citizens may stop by at their convenience to cast their votes. And in some states, citizens are voting by mail. In Oregon, all citizens are mailed a ballot 20 days before election day, and they can return the ballot by mail or drop it off at designated locations in person. Other places like Seattle and King County in the state of Washington have adopted voting by mail, but surrounding locales still use DRE or punch-card devices. Across the United States as a whole, more than one-fifth of the electorate cast their ballots before what was formerly known as "election day."

Counting the Votes

As the proportion of citizens casting ballots before election day grows, it will become more appropriate to think of the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November America's traditional presidential election day not as "election day" but as "counting day." Even though early ballots are becoming more popular, they are not counted until late on election day, so that no information can be released before the polls close about which candidate is ahead or behind. This sort of advance information could affect campaign styles and effort, as well as voter turnout.

A number of vivid lessons about counting ballots came to light during the 2000 presidential election. The principal problem in Florida, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in ruling on the disputed election, was the issue of uniform standards in counting different types of ballots. In some jurisdictions, absentee ballots are different from those that appear in the voting device in the precincts. As a result, more than one set of tabulations might have to be made. And absentee ballots are not counted at all in some jurisdictions if there are fewer absentee ballots than the difference in the vote between the two leading candidates.

The 2000 election also revealed that voting machines are like any other kind of electromechanical device: They have a tolerance for error built into them, but they require regular and periodic maintenance in order to function at their most accurate level. If an election is extremely close, the tabulating devices can produce slightly different totals when the votes are counted more than once.

When you have a national election decided by less than 0.5 percent in the popular vote, and the outcome in one state in this case, Florida is only 202 votes difference out of the more than 5.8 million votes cast for George W. Bush and Al Gore, the tabulation procedures associated with the particular devices used may become controversial. A large proportion of the votes in Florida were cast with punch-card devices. Maintenance was one issue, and the ability of voters to punch.clean holes in their ballots was another. In some locations, the design of the ballots confused voters, especially the elderly, and may have caused some voters to cast a ballot for a candidate other than the one they intended to vote for.

The closeness of the election outcome in Florida and the fact that it was the last state to be able to complete its vote count made it a special target of both the Bush and Gore forces in the weeks after election day. Because of the local nature of the American election system and the fact that the electoral college assigns its votes by state on a winner-take-all basis, both sides initiated legal actions in the state courts. Each team picked the locales in which they expected to be most successful in terms of the legal issues they raised, as well as in their ability to challenge particular kinds of votes. Neither candidate's team asked for a recount of the entire state. Ultimately, their case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court for final adjudication, where it was decided that the recounting should be stopped and the Florida Secretary of State's original certification of the result upheld. Thus Florida's 25 electoral votes went to George W. Bush, giving him an electoral college majority and securing him the presidency.

The Reform Movement

One of the distinct lessons of the 2000 election was that the election administration, balloting, and vote-counting issues encountered in Florida could have occurred to some degree in almost any jurisdiction in the United States. Even though they were unlikely to have the same consequence because election outcomes are very rarely as close as the 2000 presidential election, a number of problems were highlighted. Several studies were commissioned, and a variety of panels heard expert witnesses and took testimony about the need for reform. While there were some partisan elements to both the review and the eventual reform proposals, the perceived need for action in advance of the 2004 election outweighed those factors.

A county official in Georgia operates a new touch-screen voting machine in October, 2002. The system was being prepared for November elections. (Jenni Girtman/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
In 2002, the 107th Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which includes several notable elements. First, the federal government offered payments to states and localities to replace outdated punch-card and lever voting machines. Second, it established an Election Assistance Commission to provide technical assistance to local election administration officials and establish standards for voting devices. The Election Assistance Commission will propose voluntary guidelines for voting systems and for the testing and certification of voting system hardware and software. The commission's portfolio also includes the establishment of research programs to study voting machine and ballot design, methods of registration, methods for provisional voting and for deterring fraud, procedures for recruiting and training poll workers, education programs for voters, procedures for determining whether there is a need for more consistency among state recount processes with regard to federal offices, and alternative methods of holding elections for federal offices.

The HAVA represents a significant departure from the past reluctance of the federal government to get involved in what has been seen as a local administrative issue. But in the aftermath of the 2000 election, especially the contest over Florida, this procedural reform effort has helped reconfirm thefaith that Americans have in their electoral system. And the costs involved are small when one considers that elections are the legitimizing foundation of a functioning democracy.


Michael W. Traugott is a professor of communication studies and political science at the University of Michigan. He is the co-author of The Voter's Guide to Election Polls and Election Polls, the News Media and Democracy. His current research focuses on the effect of election administration reform.

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U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Germany/Public Affairs/Information Resource Centers 
February 2004