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Looking Back On 2012 Election Technology


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. If you're a political junkie, I'm guessing a couple of words will make your skin crawl: hanging chads. Or you might like pregnant chads or whatever - we didn't know what a chad was before then. After the problems counting ballots in the 2000 election in Florida, municipalities around the country moved to adopt electronic voting systems with the thought that they would be easier to use, more straightforward to count.

But even in this election, long after concession speeches had been made, and winners celebrated their victories, some places took days later to get the votes counted. Florida, which was considered to be one of the key swing states, had certified their state vote on Saturday, five days after the election had been decided. Why?

Well, Hurricane Sandy disrupted ballot box plans in some places so greatly that New Jersey allowed their votes to be cast by email and fax machine, something that experts frowned upon weeks before, but you do what you've got to do. How did all that work out? Were their fears justified? Or are we looking with all this into a peek of the new norm coming up?

That's what we're going to be talking about. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. And here to discuss it is Lawrence Norden. He is deputy director of the Democracy Program at Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law here in New York. He's in our New York studios. Welcome back.

LAWRENCE NORDEN: Thanks, Ira, great to be on.

FLATOW: Good to see you this time. What would - how would you rate the overall election, electronically speaking?

NORDEN: Whew. Electronically speaking, look, we - one of the issues that we have, anecdotally there certainly were problems, and some of them have gotten a lot of attention, the long lines that people had to wait on when machines broke down, the fact that it's taken so long to count votes in places like Arizona, where they're still counting, in fact, hundreds of thousands of...

FLATOW: Are they still counting? Is that the Senate vote?

NORDEN: Yeah, yeah, and some congressional races hang in the balance. One of the issues actually, though, that we have with judging our system, particularly when it comes to voting machines, is that we don't really keep track of how they're doing nationally in a systematic way, the way frankly we do with automobiles or airplanes or really almost any consumer product where there's a national database keeping track of problems from day to day, people can report them in.

We don't do that with voting machines. So if you were to ask me did the machines do better this time around than they did two years ago, I really have no idea. All I can do is look at the news reports as to what happened. And that's a real issue, frankly, with improving the system.

FLATOW: There are other ways to improve the system. Let's talk about a few of the things. Because in New Jersey, probably some places in New York, where people could not vote because of Sandy, they were allowed to go - pick a voting, you know, pick any voting place that you'd like, walk in and cast a ballot.

On the other hand, they couldn't vote for local elections. They could vote for president, probably, and vice president. But the local items on their local ballot would not be there, right? Whatever. Is there a way to create a system where you could go in and they could print a ballot out for you wherever you are?

NORDEN: There is, actually. We're not quite there yet with the technology, but we're pretty close. There's something called ballot on demand, where your ballot is just printed out. You give them your address, and they do this in early vote centers in places like Florida already. It's not as fast as we would like.

But you certainly - I could see the day where we have vote centers, and people could basically show up anywhere in their state, in their county, get their ballot, fill it out and vote - and the machines are capable of counting many, many styles of ballots.

So it's certainly within the conceivable future, and we're already doing it to a certain extent already, but I do think the technology needs to be improved a little before it's expanded even further.

FLATOW: There was an experiment done in New Jersey with fax voting.

NORDEN: And Internet voting, in fact.

FLATOW: And Internet voting. We all said before the election no, no, no, don't go there, but did we learn anything useful from it?

NORDEN: I think we learned that - look, first of all, I want to say New Jersey was in a really tough spot.

FLATOW: Right. It still is in many parts.

NORDEN: It still is, and the storm hit a week before the election, and I'm not critical of New Jersey in any way. I think they were looking for ways to ensure that people who wanted to vote could vote, and I commend them for that. Having said that, we knew going in that having people vote by Internet or fax at this point is - could be very unreliable, could be insecure, and I think the experience of New Jersey showed all of that.

And trying to do something like that at the last minute, there were lots of difficulties, and in fact I was involved with nonpartisan election protection taking phone calls from many places. By far one of the biggest places we got complaints from was from New Jersey, from people trying to email in their ballots. They weren't being accepted. There were lots of problems.

FLATOW: It crashed the servers?

NORDEN: Crashed the servers in more than a couple counties. So, you know, it was a worthy attempt, but I think in the end it didn't go as well as people had hoped it would.

FLATOW: And I guess the fortunate - not - speaking in general terms, it's fortunate that that was not a key state, right. If it had happened in a key state, we'd still be doing - in court or hearing things going on.

NORDEN: Absolutely, you know, for me a nightmare scenario. And this is something we need to think about going forward. I think we have to change some of our election rules and the way we run our elections. If that had happened in Florida or Ohio, in addition to all the misery it brought to the citizens of New Jersey and New York, we would have - we potentially could have had a constitutional crisis with trying to deal with that.

You know, if it was a state that was deciding the presidential election, that could have been a real nightmare.

FLATOW: Florida, you think it could happen there again? Well, what did happen in Florida? They were waiting for five hours, some people. I heard stories about that.

NORDEN: Yeah, yeah, I think what happened in Florida - and we saw this in some other places, as well. But I think one of the big problems in Florida is they reduced the early voting period in Florida from 14 days to eight days. A lot of groups had warned that that could cause problems, and I think in the end in fact it did. They eliminated some days that were very popular for people to vote on.

And so you were cramming a lot more people on Election Day into potentially fewer polling places than you were in the past. So that was a big problem. Another problem, the ballots were really long in Florida. So that's another thing. So that's - that could be a problem.

FLATOW: Let's take a phone call from Antonio(ph), who's calling from Brazil. Hi, Antonio.

ANTONIO: Hi, Ira. Actually, I am in California right now. I am originally from Brazil. And I guess my comment is Brazil has a very large population, and it's a very large country as far as territory. And voting is mandatory. So you can imagine that it should be a hassle to vote. But what happened is it's completely different.

I mean, we've been voting electronically since the late '90s, and election, there's no early election. Everything happens in one day. So we have this large amount of people voting in one day electronically, and everything happens just fine, very smoothly. So I just don't understand how in the United States things are so confusing and so messy.

I guess my opinion is just that you have so many different local entities and states trying to do things differently, that makes things messier and more confusing for people.

FLATOW: Good point, let me get a reaction.

NORDEN: Yeah, that's a great point, Antonio. One of the things I often say when we're talking about our big federal, national elections is it's not just one election, it's not even 50 elections. I think a lot of people think well, we have 50 states running these elections. We really have 4,600 separate jurisdictions running elections because elections are really run at the county and town level.

And, you know, I think a lot of people ask why can't we just have one voting system, one ballot, and unfortunately that's probably really difficult to do when you look at a place like Los Angeles County, which has, you know, can have 200, 250 contests on the ballot versus a small town in New Hampshire that might have five.

On the other hand, I do think we need to think more about at least having some minimal federal standards because the truth of the matter is when you're voting for something like president, people in New York, people in California really care about the way they're running their elections in Ohio and Florida.

FLATOW: Isn't there some federal commission that's supposed to help deal with some of these standards and issues?

NORDEN: There is. After 2000, this - you know, and the crisis of understanding how - the cracks in election administration, there was an agency formed, the Election Assistance Commission. It was supposed to help establish minimum guidelines, at least, guidelines for security and reliability of voting machines, how to deal with sudden crises like the Superstorm Sandy. And amazingly it's been without any commissioners for about a year. It's been without an executive director.

FLATOW: There's nobody on the committee?

NORDEN: It has not really - unfortunately, it's not been as functioning an agency without commissioners and an executive director for the past - so it's kind of amazing. We went into this huge national election with all of these election administration issues, and it just wasn't there.

And the fact of the matter is it's not just about one election to the next. There are jurisdictions around the country that would like to buy new voting machines, but they're waiting for new guidelines from this commission. They buy the machines that are up to the best standards.

FLATOW: Why is there nobody on the commission? Or are there people missing or some people there?

NORDEN: The Republicans are supposed to nominate two commissioners, and the Democrats are supposed to nominate two commissioners. There are a number of people in Congress, I don't really understand this, who would like to do away with the agency. And President Obama nominated two commissioners, they are both Democrats. They got a hearing. They never got a vote in the Senate. And the Republicans have not nominated anybody.

So, you know, I'm hoping that with the president's call to - you know, he said we need to fix this system, that I think there's a lot that Congress could do. But the very least it could do is get this commission back up and running so that it can help serve local jurisdictions.

FLATOW: You know, they're in budget-cutting mode, so...

NORDEN: They are in budget-cutting mode. The good news is the Election Assistance Commission really doesn't cost that much. Its budget is incredibly small. I think it was about $11 million or something last year. So, you know, elections - unfortunately elections are always the first thing that gets cut, but given how important they are to our entire country, I think spending just a little bit, and $11 million isn't a heck of a lot...

FLATOW: One quick question before the break. There's that famous video online of the touch screen machine that was flipping votes. How prevalent was that, or was that just one instance, or...

NORDEN: You know, I think we're going to see more and more of those kinds of things with social media, but it happens, it happens a fair amount. And I think it's really - what it is is a calibration issue, it's not like somebody's trying to steal somebody's vote. But it's something that can be fixed, certainly, long-term.

FLATOW: What bothered me also was that the person who was doing it said that the person standing there didn't care.

NORDEN: Well, that's terrible. Those machines should be taken out of service if they're repeatedly doing something like that.

FLATOW: And we don't know how many votes had been cast before then, either.

NORDEN: Right, yeah.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to come back and talk more with Lawrence Norden at 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us @scifri. How did voting go for you? What would you like to see change for the next voting system? Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. We're talking about electronic voting, voting systems, technologies, how well - how well did it work this time around? What kind of improvements could we make? We're talking with Lawrence Norden, who is deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, NYU Law School.

What do you study there? Do you study new methods, democracy, how to make voting better, or...

NORDEN: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: Is there anything new that you're thinking about that would improve the system?

NORDEN: Yeah. I think the biggest thing - look, there are lots of things that we could do to improve the system, but the biggest thing we could do, the biggest problem we have in elections actually is around registration. People show up to the polls, they're not in the books, so they have to fill out, maybe, a provisional ballot. And there are all kinds of concerns with having - people know about this.

People move. They're still on the rolls. It makes it very difficult when you have rolls full of extra people to plan for elections, frankly, because you don't know how many people are actually registered in your jurisdiction. We have a very antiquated, 19th-century, paper-based registration system. You actually fill out a piece of paper when you register. Somebody then types it in for you. They might make errors.

When you move - most people don't do this - but you're supposed to notify your old county that you've moved and reregister somewhere else. There's no reason that we should be working on this system. As I said, it's a 19th-century-based system. Right now, there are lots of agencies that know when you move. You notify the Post Office when you move, right, to have your mail forwarded.

When you go sign up for your new driver's license with your new address on it, they know about it. And there are...

FLATOW: Taxes, you pay taxes.

NORDEN: And all of these are in computerized databases. There's no reason - unless you object, which you could certainly do - that this information shouldn't go directly to the elections offices so that all of this paperwork doesn't have to get done, you're automatically reregistered wherever you went to vote. We could make sure that millions of more people were registered, frankly, this way, and the system would run so much more smoothly.

We would avoid all of these issues of the poll worker not being able to find you when they go in, that creating long lines. There are - one of the reasons that we have hundreds of thousands of extra ballots being counted in Arizona right now is because they're all provisional ballots. We would get rid of a lot of these provisional ballots, where they have to double-check whether the person is actually correctly registered in their county.

So where - that's definitely our number one thing that we're pushing. We think it would solve a lot of election issues.

FLATOW: Just integrated all that data from different places, get it some - some registry where it'll...

NORDEN: One central, computerized registry would bring our registration system up to the 21st century. And quite frankly, we have - you know, we're the leading democracy in the world, but we're way behind lots of other countries in this.

FLATOW: Can't we - and why not register online? Or is that not secure enough?

NORDEN: Well, that's part of it. No, frankly, we should register online, and you should be able to go online and say, wait a second. This information about me is incorrect. It says I'm on Ninth Street. I'm actually on 10th Street. Or I moved from one county to the next. Let me fix this. It would make it so much easier, faster and more accurate.

FLATOW: No app for that, huh?

NORDEN: Well, some states - you know, a lot of states are doing this. I have to say. We're slowly doing it, but it's being done very piecemeal. And I would like to see this done on a federal level.

FLATOW: Who's the best state? I don't want you to play favorites, I know you hate to do that. But who is out front in...

NORDEN: Yeah. Well, on this issue, there are a number of states that are doing very well. Delaware is doing a great job. They've automated their registration at DMVs. Lots of states are doing online registration now, Oregon. New York just actually started doing online registration, Washington state. There are lots of states that are moving, but it's much - it's much slower than it should be.

FLATOW: You know, every time we talk about this, and we talk about creating a national database, there are - people have concerns about security, about transparency, stealing your data. Do you think there's a system out there that would satisfy everybody?

NORDEN: I do, actually. I - you know, we've thought very deeply about this, and there - and it's already being done in some places. But there's a way of doing this so it's secure and so that we ensure that people's information is kept private for sure.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you very much for taking time - this is - we learned a lot today.

NORDEN: Great.

FLATOW: I'm optimistic, guardedly optimistic about the future.

NORDEN: Well, you know, I think we should be. The one - the good news in - the good news is in the attention to the problems of the election, I think there is renewed focus on this. And these issues are very fixable. That's - and that is reason for being optimistic. We're not talking about rocket science, here. There are actually real, simple solutions that we've already seen implemented in some places.

FLATOW: Maybe if we were talking about rocket science, it would be easy.


NORDEN: Maybe so.

FLATOW: Larry Norden is at the Brennan School for Justice at NYU School of Law here in New York. Thanks for coming in and being part of this.

NORDEN: Thanks for having me on again, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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