lessons from America

Accounting for the slow voting and counting

Hooray, I feel over the worst of the jet lag.  Never had it so bad, but then I don’t normally have such a crazy schedule and lack of sleep on ‘holiday’.  So after a few days of quiet from me and my blog, I’m back in business.  

And happily, this election isn’t over.  Missouri hasn’t been officially declared yet (though McCain will win it and the state’s totemic ‘bellweather’ status will shrink).  But the big news is the big 60 is still theoretically on for the Democrats in the Senate.  Al Franken and Norm Coleman are locked in an almighty battle for Minnesota’s Senate seat, with a recount virtually guaranteed given the 200-odd votes separating them.  The Alaskan Senate seat is also going the distance, but is even more remarkable; with long-time incumbent, convicted felon and race leader Ted Stevens seeing his narrow lead completely disappear and go into the negative as more votes are counted.  And there will be a run-off for the Georgia Senate seat in December, as it has finally been confirmed that Republican Saxby Chamblis did not gain 50%+ that was needed to won the seat outright.

In my many conversations with people since returning to London, it is clear that one of the things we Brits have trouble fathoming out is why the way US citizens vote and how those votes are counted is so problematic, slow and open to partisan challenges.  We get upset – and the media in frenzied fits of hysteria and pique – when the results aren’t known within a few hours; when there have been technical difficulties with voting machines and some ballot paper confusion (Scotland 2007); or when the count doesn’t start til the next day and a pleasingly high turnout makes the process take longer and carry on late into the night (London 2008). 

There are four aspects I want to comment on: (i) the voting lines on election day (ii) State differences (iii) post-election counting (iv) the continued role of parties and money.  This post will deal with the first one, and I’ll return to others later.

First up those queues.  Listening to election day coverage on the car radio on the drive up to Chicago was a surreal experience.  It was like dial-to-dial traffic reports; except it wasn’t traffic hotspots that were being broadcast, it was polling station queues and reported problems.  CNN and other major networks set up hotlines that you could call; and most of interviews throughout the day were done with people on location at some of the trouble spots.  My favourite reports came from Virginia and the Carolinas, where along with other more serious issues, they encountered problems caused by damp ballot papers jamming the machine.  Apparently, it was raining outside and drips of water were falling from voters’ faces, hands or clothing onto the ballot paper and the machines couldn’t cope. 

However, this election day voter disenfranchisement was a dog which didn’t bark – at least not as vociferously as had been expected.  There were ridicuously long lines in some places, and voters in a few areas had to wait 6-8 hours.  And that isn’t acceptable.  And there will undoubtedly have been a few places where the distribution of polling stations and voting equipment was purposely gerrymandered to unfairly disadvantage the other side – usually that means not enough resources in African-American or other high density, low income neighbourhoods.  And if there had been a close result nationwide, some of the reported problems might have received much further scrutiny. 

Yet it should be remembered there was no meltdown. As far as I am aware, no counties had to take emergency action and extend polling hours to cope, as happened in several states during the Democratic Primaries.  Part of this is attributable to the unprecedented rush for early voting (in those states that allowed it), which relieved the pressure to some extent on 4 November.  Ironically, it was often those people most worried by election day problems that had the longest queues, as they – and many of their neighbours – early voted.   Lawmakers are so impressed by the success of these early voting initiatives that there is a prediction they will encourage all states to bring in some form of it for 2012.  The other reason for the lower level of problems was probably because of all the hard work, on-the-ground organising and observing put in to making voting fairer. See ProjectVote for more.

The other factor to bear in mind, which is news to a lot of Brits, is that long voting lines doesn’t need to signify a ‘third world’ (I hate that term) democracy – at least not in a negative connation.  It doesn’t have to mean that the US is some hapless banana republic when it comes to electoral administration, though there are room for many major improvements.  Neither does it have to mean that American citizens are imbued with a civic delight and an enthusiasm to vote irrespective of the hardships of waiting in line for hours akin to those uplifting scenes in post-Apartheid South Africa.  Though this year, for this election, that actually did feel an appropriate analogy; especially looking at the faces of those who were in the queue at my polling station well before the doors opened. 

One key reason for the lines, and one we don’t realise, is just that the process of voting takes a lot longer than it does here.  It’s those lengthy ballots, voting not just for president, senator and congressman, but for local politicians, judges, sheriffs and varied other elected positions. And then often a range of statewide and local ballot initiatives (referendum) too.  Democracy takes time.  At least several more minutes per voter.  And then it is often not just a case of going in, making a couple of pencil marks, folding up the ballot paper and depositing it in a box, as we are used to.  Voters may have to scan their filled in ballot paper through the machine, ensure that is done right, then deposit the paper version in a box.  All this takes time, slows down the number of voters that can be processed through the polling station, and can easily and quickly result in queues building up.

November 14, 2008 Posted by | counting votes, Uncategorized | , , , | 2 Comments

The early voting quandry

Minnesota doesn’t allo early voting.  Its citizens seem to take pride in having huge turnouts on election day.  The state usually tops the list in terms of turnout.  You can get an absentee ballot though, and you can vote early at the City Hall, though not many people do.  When phonebanking at the Obama office I did speak to some concerned elderly and frail people, or those with young children, who the thought of spending hours in line to vote was not a happy, or possible one. 

One solution, at least for a few people in one location in Minneapolis, is the advent of ‘kerbside voting’.  Its a variation on the US tradition of ‘kerbside check-in’ at airports, but here the ballot box – along with two election officials – come to your car outside the polling station if someone is physically not able to deal with getting into the polling station and waiting in line.  Neat idea.  Though it does require greater numbers of trained pollworkers to be on site to fulfill that service and keep the rest of the lines moving.

Early voting is better for the parties: it means activists can spend their time doing GOTV rather than standing in line on election day; it is votes in the bag which can’t be lost through an October / November surprise; and it means the parties can focus their efforts more effectively on the day itself.

However, early voting isn’t necessarily an easy option for voters.  It may still mean standing in long lines, for hours, especially when so many other people are doing the same.  In Denver a week ago early voting was running at 20% of eligible voters.  In figures quoted on, “in North Carolina, 42% of all Democrats, 35% of all Republicans, and 30% of all independents have already voted. In Florida the numbers are 22%, 15%, and 20%, respectively.”  The TV has been showing scenes of massive queues of people waiting to vote at some polling stations.  In many (urban) places in Florida, the wait is 5-6 hours on average.

How many people can afford to take that time – to be at the polls and thus not be at work or looking after their children? Or what happens if they are too frail to wait in line for that long?  There is plenty of scope for these arrangements to disenfranchise people – a “new poll tax” as Rachel Maddow called it on her MSNBC show tonight.  And it really is an issue here in Ohio.  Reports from Columbus talk about the problems experienced around that area  And in Ohio as a whole, it is estimated that 10,000 more people have given up queuing for casting an early vote than was the Bush victory margin over Kerry in this state in 2004.

I believe in the value of early voting.  But just as Rachel Maddow and others point out, the elections infrastructure needs to be fixed and modernised – and overseen in a non-partisan way – in order for the full democratic benefits of early voting to be felt.

November 3, 2008 Posted by | counting votes, lessons from America | 1 Comment

An early vote for Obama

When I was in Denver, I fulfilled a long-held ambition …..

Sadly – and to clarify – no, I did not vote.  This isn’t my ballot paper and nor did I get to fill it in (despite asking very nicely).  This Denver ballor paper belongs to Hunter, who showed it to me over the weekend; before he completed it and early voted in a polling station near his work. 

My ambition though had been to see an actual ballot paper close-up and just get a sense of it.  You can read the instructions as to how to fill it out, and also the beginning of the list of presidential candidates in the state of Colorado, by clicking on each of the photos below.


The ballot paper starts with the presidential race, then the Senate, then the local Congressional one.  And then the countless local council races and locally elected positions, like judge.  And that’s just on the first ballot paper ….

As modelled by Hunter below, there are in fact two large ballot papers for the voter to fill in.  

The second ballot paper is for the ballot initiatives – the referendum on specific measures amending the local/state constitution or mandating the local authority in charge to do something or spend money in a certain way. 

Despite the fact that I am about to stump for one of these ballot initiatives, I have my scepticisms.  Especially in a presidential race as hard fought and epoch-making as this one, local issues rarely get any kind of prominence or generate wide debate.  Voters often will not know much about what the candidates stand for; or even who they are.  And these initiatives often (and the Cincinnati one is a happy exception) end up being exceedingly negative; with the campaigns trading negative adverts and mud being flown everywhichway.  It doens’t have to be like this.  But as things stand I’m not sure what good it might do to export this ballot paper featue – and the strand of greater direct democracy it entails – to the UK.

October 31, 2008 Posted by | counting votes, On the Campaign Trail | , , , , | 3 Comments

One in the (postal) bag for Obama

A number of my American friends living in London have already sent back their absentee ballots.  Meghan herself has just done it – see photo of her NY ballot paper and read her comments on the process.

Last Friday I met up for dinner with a friend who is registered to vote in Florida.  Miami-Dade County to be precise.  That was one of the hotspots back in 2000, with shenigans (definitely), irregularities (alleged) and the likelihood of votes not counting that should have been, and vice-versa.  Anyway, she showed me a sealed envelope with her completed ballot inside.  A vote for Obama she proudly proclaimed. The envelope was posted over weekend – apparently the lady at the post office even wished her luck.  Now the ballot paper should be winging its merry way to Florida to await being processed and added into the Obama column once polls have closed and votes are counted.

Or will it? …. The counting of absentee ballot papers is a contentious and complicated issue, and plenty of urban myths and anecdotes abound.  I’ve done some web research on it (useful discussions here, here and here) but don’t claim this is a definitive answer.  Absentee ballots [postal votes in UK parlance] are counted separately from in-person votes and often totalled up separately; sometimes on election night, but usually it can take several weeks, especially as some states allow absentee ballots to come in up to ten days after close of polling.  My belief is that Florida is one of those states – it certainly used to be.  The official guidelines say the ballot “must be mailed or delivered in person to the Supervisor of Elections no later than 7 p.m. on election day.”  That could mean, as has happened in the past,  that ballots are continued to be accepted for a defined provided that they are postmarked no later than the day of the election.  Or even in the absence of a postmark (as I saw remarked in one place and I don’t know if this is still true or not) if the witness’s signature is dated no later than the election day.  Either way, the official result, as certified by the State’s top election official, is often not for several weeks after the election itself.  But that final result does include all the verified absentee ballots.  So the answer is yes, absentee votes do count.

However, there are a couple of caveats; although hopefully some of these should have been lessened by the passing of the Help America Vote Act.   A major problem (in Florida in 2000 especially and other places too) was the lack of a properly implemented standard for physically verifying and counting those absentee ballots.  Different pollworkers and different counties might interpret what constituted a valid vote in a  different way.  Primarily, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, there needs to be “tighter security and better training for poll workers counting absentee ballots.”   One other problem my friend didn’t encounter but in the past has been significant is the late sending out of ballots to voters. As Fairvote reports, “in Broward County, Florida, 58,000 absentee ballots were sent out late for the 2004 election. Many voters simply did not have the time to mark their ballot and send it in to be counted”.  Still to early to know if it might be factor this election.

There is one plausible way though that some absentee voters could feel themselves disenfranchised: that is politically.   As pointed out on the FairVote website:

“How many times on election night have we gone to bed thinking a particular candidate or ballot measure was winning in a close race, only to find that after absentee and provisional ballots were counted the results had changed? …  If the race is close, final determination will depend on the counting of absentee and provisional ballots. If the race is not close, we will know who won on election night.”

If you aren’t in a battleground state or if one candidate wins by a landslide, your vote will count in the official tallies, but it makes no difference to the media and political narrative of the election.  However, if in the state you voted in the result is close or perceived to be so, then suddenly your ballot paper matters again.  It’s not just down to the voters though.  The decision on whether your vote is seen as important on election night and how it can affect the result can also be made by the TV networks if/when they ‘call’ a race and by the pundits and party spokespeople as they spin that decision and the campaigns’ response. And we all know of or remember the horrors of that fateful night in November 2000.  2004 wasn’t far off either. 

Here’s hoping every absentee vote does count this time.  But time, luck, human failings, partisan judgement and the overall electoral picture will determine how close we get to that ideal.  And fingers-crossed in Florida especially: for the right result democratically and politically.

October 23, 2008 Posted by | counting votes, systems | , , , , | 1 Comment