Your Father's Voting Booth


In addition to determining the next president, the Florida recount has brought attention to a hazard that has been overlooked for too long: hanging chads. A chad is the little piece of paper that you poke out on a punchcard; if you don't poke it out completely, it hangs.

When punchcards are passed through vote counting machines, hanging chads can cover up the holes, preventing votes from registering. If chads fall off before or during a recount, phantom votes rematerialize–one reason for the discrepancies between Florida's first and second counts.

It's a bit disconcerting, especially when an election is close, to realize that vote tallies can be affected by the ability of tiny paper squares to hang in there. It also makes you wonder (if you didn't before) why election authorities continue to rely on a voting method that was introduced in 1964, based on a technology that predates IBM.

Hanging chads are not the only drawback of voting by punchcard. Arranging the ballot so that each choice is next to its corresponding hole can be a challenge, especially when there are lots of choices and you are anxious to make the print big enough for senior citizens to read, as Palm Beach County's election supervisor was.

The Democrats claim the layout of the Palm Beach County ballot was so confusing that hundreds, maybe thousands, of Floridians mistakenly voted for the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore. Three residents who say they mispoked have filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of the county's presidential vote, arguing that the ballot did not conform to the standards set by state law.

The first thing that should be said about these plaintiffs is that they can't be very bright. Although the names of the presidential candidates were awkwardly listed on both sides of a central column where the holes were to be punched, each ticket had an arrow clearly indicating which hole corresponded to it.

But unless we are going to bar the easily confused from voting, it's only fair that ballots be made as straightforward as possible. And if an antiquated technology gets in the way of that effort, that's one more reason to get rid of it.

According to the Federal Election Commission, punchcards were used by 37 percent of voters in the 1996 presidential election. Another 21 percent used mechanical lever machines, an even older technology introduced in 1892.

New York City has been using the same voting machines for 40 years. They need careful maintenance and tend to break down at inconvenient times, requiring voters to use paper ballots–assuming their polling stations have enough on hand.

Paper ballots, by the way, were used by 1.7 percent of voters, largely absentees or residents of rural areas, in 1996. A slightly more advanced approach, optical scan ballots similar to the forms developed for standardized tests, was used about 25 percent of the time.

While standardized tests are increasingly available in electronic form, government officials still think filling in circles with number two pencils is the wave of the future. The FEC reports that the use of optical scan ballots is on the rise.

Compared to these outmoded methods, the advantages of electronic voting are clear. No hanging chads. No finicky levers. No stray pencil marks. Automatic vote tallies. Voting stations that can be used by residents of any district. Ballots that can be laid out clearly enough to be readily understood, even by Democrats in Palm Beach County.

In addition to online voting operations such as eBallot and eVote, several companies offer on-site electronic voting systems. They work like this: After your registration is verified, you receive a smart card that you slide into the voting machine, which then displays the appropriate ballot on its screen. As with an ATM, you make your selections by touching the screen or pressing buttons along it. You turn in the smart card when you leave.

Despite its ease, accuracy, and flexibility, electronic balloting was used by less than 8 percent of voters in 1996. Politicians in New York City have been talking about making the switch since 1984, but voters are still stuck with the same machines that were used when Kennedy defeated Nixon.

Perhaps inefficiency is not the only reason for such foot dragging. The older, clumsier voting methods are more prone to error and manipulation. To politicians, that may sound like an advantage.