Dan Tokaji's Blog
Professor Dan Tokaji
Election reform, the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act, and related topics -- with special attention to the voting rights of people of color, non-English proficient citizens, and people with disabilities

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Equal Vote
Tuesday, February 15
A Million Votes Saved
The Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project has released this report by MIT's Charles Stewart, which discusses how changes in voting equipment affected the number of votes uncounted. Overall, the report estimates that approximately one million votes were counted this year that wouldn't have been, had it not been for the changes in technology and administrative practices that took place in the past four years.

The report is based on reports of "residual votes" from most of the states. That's the measure most commonly used to evaluate voting technology, and is the sum of undervotes (ballots for which no choice was registered for president) and overvotes (ballots for which more than one choice was made, thus invalidating the ballot). Nationwide, the residual vote rate fell significantly, from 1.91% in 2000 to 1.07% in 2004. Stewart derives the one million saved votes estimate by multiplying the nationwide decline in the residual vote rate (.84%) by the total number of ballots cast (122.2 million).

The places where the biggest improvements took place were those in which the entire state made the transition to new technology. For example, Georgia saw a major improvement in its residual vote rate when it moved from the hodgepodge of systems used in 2000 (including optical scans, levers, and punch cards) to an all-electronic system in 2004. It's residual vote rate declined from 3.5% to 0.4%. Florida also saw a big improvement. Counties that had used punch cards and central-count optical scan equipment in 2000 moved to electronic and precinct-count optical scan equipment in 2004, and the statewide residual vote rate declined from 2.9% to 0.4%.

Of course, not all residual votes represent mistakes. Some are the result of voters intentionally abstaining. But survey data shows that intentional non-voting is rare in presidential races, generally around .3 to .7%. Still, the dramatic declines in undervotes are a very strong indication that the new technology had its desired effect, resulting in many more Americans' votes being counted.

My take: With all the attention that's been paid to the problems in Election 2004, and there were many, it's nice to have some tangible evidence that at least one aspect of the Help America Vote Act -- the upgrade of voting equipment -- has its desired effect. If the states like Ohio that still haven't replaced their punch card and central-count optical scan systems finally make the switch, we can expect to see further improvements by 2008.

But that's a big if. USA Today reports here that there's considerable doubt as to whether all the states that are supposed to replace their punch card and lever voting equipment, as a condition of receiving money under Title I of HAVA, will actually fulfill their obligation. Although HAVA required new voting equipment to be in place by 2004, many states got waivers extending the date until 2006. Some of those states may end up having to give back some of the federal funds they received.

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