Democracy demands equitable elections

Kai Hagen

November 11, 2004

The presidential campaign that seemed like it would never end, did. And no doubt, many voters are glad it's over, whether they are pleased with the result, disappointed, or indifferent.

Because John Kerry did not call for recounts or file lawsuits in Ohio, or New Mexico for that matter, the nation has been spared a repeat of the fiasco in Florida four years ago.

But clearly that doesn't mean everything is as it should be, in Florida, Ohio, or even here in Maryland.

After the conflict following the 2000 election, and given all the attention the voting process received then, and since, you might think four years was sufficient time to resolve the worst problems and avoid nagging uncertainty or explosive controversy.

After the dust settled back then, you might have thought our elected leaders were going to take every step necessary to ensure that one of the most basic and precious elements of our democracy was functioning as it should be, as most of us thought it had been before we learned otherwise.

Despite the heavy emphasis on the problems in Florida, the bigger story, the previously untold story, or at least a largely unheard story, was that sizable errors and inequities were widespread and ongoing. While most of us probably never assumed the system was flawless, those of us who had generally taken the process for granted found out that serious problems were not rare exceptions that prove the rule.

If anything is both secular and sacred in our country, it's voting. And real democracy depends on having an honest and fair election system.

But beyond hanging chads and butterfly ballots, we learned that many states use different methods of voting in different areas (still including punch card systems), and that many thousands of votes are routinely not counted. That should concern us, even if the so-called "spoiled" ballots were randomly or evenly distributed within a state. But they are not. Citizens using certain voting methods or technologies are far more likely than others to have their vote thrown out.

It should concern us even if it was, as some suggest, because poor and less educated communities are bound to have more problems with incorrectly completed ballots. But research shows that's not the reason. Spoilage rates are comparable across communities when the methods and circumstances are the same.

It should concern us that, because voting machines have been funded at the county level (as well as hiring and training poll workers, maintaining registration lists, and more), the types of machines used and the level of support often correlate to the wealth of the county.

And it should concern us that the shortcomings and inequities of voting methods and machines and polling place support are just a few items on a long list of problems that still need to be fixed.

Fairness is a core American value, and it's no small irony that our belief and confidence in the fairness of our system has likely contributed to the expansive list of democracy-damaging voting problems we face now.

Four years, all the speeches, the rushed passage of the Help America Vote Act, and all the money that's been spent, has not been enough to fix the situation. If nothing else, that suggests it isn't easy to fix.

But it must be fixed.

We are at a point where every part of the process that does not work in a fair and equitable way will increasingly become the subject of deliberate electoral and campaign strategy. Saying so is not based on wild conspiracy theories, so much as a practical understanding that campaigns will always adapt to the landscape.

People worn out from the campaign probably don't want to think about this right now. That's understandable. But as far away from the next election as possible, let's put aside partisanship long enough to do what it takes to live up to our ideals. Among other things, that means establishing a system that's as fair and uniform as possible across each state. That's the American way.

In Frederick County, and Maryland, that means having a more transparent system that includes an auditable paper trail, and, if necessary, the ability to do a recount where individual votes are actually counted.

Maryland rushed to adopt the new electronic voting machines, and they are easy to use. But if we keep using them, in spite of growing concerns about untrackable errors and the potential for fraud, we ought to require that all electronic voting machines produce a voter-verifiable paper record.

As we've become more aware of the potential problems of these new, convenient machines, other states have already added such a requirement. In spite of opposition to the idea from some quarters, can you think of a single convincing reason not to make that change?

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at