Imagine that at the end of next month’s Super Bowl, the scoreboard said: “Giants, 2?; Patriots, 2?” What if National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that the winner couldn’t be determined because the results of some plays had been lost and couldn’t be found? Americans would be incredulous. The outrage would be unending.
And yet, a few days ago, a little less than a month after the Republicans held their political Super Bowl -- the Iowa Caucuses -- the party was forced to admit that the result of that contest will never be known. On election night, the scoreboard said former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had won; last week, Iowa Republicans certified former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum as the winner.
The real score is a mystery because the results from eight precincts are unknown and the number of unaccounted-for votes is more than enough to tip the result one way or the other.
The bottom line: The Republican field spent months and millions of dollars; reporters and pundits devoted endless coverage; citizens read and studied and listened and watched; more than 120,000 Iowans came out and voted -- and our rickety electoral machinery couldn’t produce a definitive outcome.
The Super Bowl metaphor is absurd, of course, because we invest untold sums in tracking, monitoring, tallying and recording the result of every single football play. The score appears on a multimillion-dollar scoreboard; the game is taped from multiple angles; the rules enforced by highly trained, neutral officials. Any disputes are handled by recourse to instantaneous, state-of-the-art, video replay.
Why then, in the world’s greatest democracy, do voters still vote on paper ballots tabulated by hand, on punch-card devices that jam or misalign, and on color-the-circle bubble sheets that misread entries that are marked in pen or filled in outside the lines? Why are these votes tallied by interested partisans; by once-every-four-year volunteers; by ill-trained, paid-for-the-day workers? And how can counted ballots be lost, vote counts mistaken without possibility of change, and scores of votes never counted at all?
In 2000, I spent 36 days at ground zero of our nation’s worst electoral disaster, as general counsel for the Al Gore recount committee in Tallahassee, Florida. Most people remember the hard-fought battle over tallying the handful of disputed votes that made the difference; the absurdity of George W. Bush’s campaign chairwoman doubling as Florida’s chief elections officer (with the governor, the Republican candidate’s brother, peering over her shoulder); and the Supreme Court’s unprincipled 5-4 decision to halt the recount that the Florida courts had finally gotten under way by mid-December.
But the broader lesson that Florida should have taught us is that the basic machinery for casting and counting ballots is outdated and broken. It uses old and unreliable technology, is too vulnerable to human error, and results in hundreds of thousands of votes nationwide being discarded as uncountable in every election.
The problems of Florida in 2000 weren’t unique; indeed, they were common in our country. What made Florida stand out was that the election was close enough for these problems to be consequential. In the end, our electoral system was shown not to enable a democracy, but only an “approximatocracy”: a process that is accurate enough to tell us roughly how the voters voted, but unable to do so with the precision needed to ascertain the true winner of a close election.
In the aftermath of that disaster, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002, with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Among other positive provisions, the law promised an election-systems overhaul, and it has succeeded in almost eliminating the worst voting-machine villain of the 2000 election: the wildly unreliable punch-card system, which failed to capture 2 percent to 3 percent of all votes cast on it, resulting in a gigantic number of lost votes each election. (By 2010, less than 1 percent of voters still voted on these relics; still too many, but a major improvement).
But if the worst systems were junked, that doesn’t mean the best were widely deployed. A study of the 2010 elections showed that a decade after the Florida fiasco, only 8 percent of voters nationwide used state-of-the-art, direct recording electronic voting machines with a paper record for voter verification. That year, almost half of us voted on paper ballots read by optical-scan machines (which struggle to accurately tally ballots where there are erasures or voter sloppiness) -- or by human counters. About a quarter of us voted on electronic machines that produce no paper records for verification and are tremendously vulnerable to mistakes of all sorts.
Democrats are responsible for some of this lack of progress, as paranoia about corporate-controlled voting-machine conspiracies led some in the party to oppose the deployment of new voting technology in the early post-Florida years.
Fears of the possibility of a corporate-stolen election delayed technological improvements that could have changed the reality that hundreds of thousands of actual votes are discarded or untabulated each year.
But there is no question that the lion’s share of the resistance to the full and rapid deployment of the best voting technology was on the Republican side. Once the glare of the post-Florida 2000 spotlight faded, Republican legislators and election officials reverted to form, and did everything possible to resist investments and improvements in our vote-casting and - counting systems. Their crass political calculation was that most of the voters stuck with the least reliable machinery were poorer people in urban areas, and more likely to vote Democratic.
As a result, these partisans reasoned, slowing the progress in rolling out an overhaul of our voting system would produce a net gain of votes for Republicans.
Will conservatives change their minds now that they have been stung by the Iowa vote-tabulation misfire, which denied Santorum the huge momentum boost that could have been his had he been declared the winner on caucus night? Will conservatives and Republicans now appreciate that everyone has a stake in America’s having the electoral system we deserve? Will they abandon their partisan preference for unreliability in the system, and embrace a bipartisan commitment to invest in state-of-the-art vote casting and -counting (and verification) machinery at every polling place in the country?
It’s too late to put such a system in place for 2012. But perhaps after this election, all of us -- Democrats, Republicans and independents; conservatives, liberals, and moderates -- can come together and decide to give America the voting system it deserves.
Let’s hope that four years from now, by the time of Super Bowl L, we can have a system to cast and count votes (and find and fix errors) that is as reliable as the scoreboard in the stadium in which that game will be played. What we insist upon for Super Sunday should be the standard for our Super Tuesdays.
(Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden and a senior adviser to President Barack Obama on the Recovery Act, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior executive with a private investment firm. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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