Census has lessons for election

Officials looking for ways to repair the presidential election system could

take a few lessons from the Census Bureau, which cleaned up its act with

technology after losing forms, undercounting responses and facing court

battles over many decennial missteps.

The answer for election officials is quality assurance, some experts

said. That means making sure the system works at every step along the way

and not waiting until the end, when the entire system may blow up — as it

did in Florida on Election Day.

"Much of what the country is talking about are issues that have long

been experienced and studied at the Census Bureau [while] conducting a full

count of everyone residing in the United States," Census Bureau spokesman

Steve Jost said.

Local voting precincts are dealing with the same type of outdated equipment

that used to bog down the census, officials said.

"If there was a more systematic use of technology, especially the scanning

technology vs. [punch-card] technology, there probably would have been fewer

problems," said Richard Mason, a professor of management information sciences

at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Costing $6.5 billion, the 2000 Census is fully automated, using optical

scanners that capture data, including handwriting or any marks. If the data

returned from a form is questionable, it is turned over to a person to be

manually inspected and processed.

"We build quality assurance in at every stage," said John Thompson,

the associate director for the decennial census. "Sometimes, we'll take

a sample of work, or a supervisor will inspect it and make sure it works."

But the federally run census introduced automation only after years

of problems and trials. Adapting some of these techniques to a decentralized

voting system run by the states may take years and an investment of many

billions of dollars.

"The real problem is that there isn't a set of standards [for elections],

nor is there the authority on what the standards should be," said Margo

Anderson, a history professor and census expert at the University of Wisconsin

in Milwaukee.

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