U.S. election system suffers from lack of planning

An analysis of last month’s general election turned up few catastrophes but revealed a pattern of frequent problems caused by poor planning, inadequate training and technology glitches.

Despite the problems, “there were few races in which polling-place problems could have affected the outcome,” said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, the nonpartisan research organization that produced the study. But the fragmented U.S. election system, now in the middle of a massive shift to new computerized technology, fails to ensure that every citizen has a chance to vote and that each vote is accurately counted.

One of the lessons drawn from the analysis, which Chapin described as a rough “first blush” look at the election, is that preparation pays off. New voting laws and new technology are creating confusion among election officials and voters alike, and those jurisdictions that planned and trained workers for Election Day had the greatest success, Chapin said.

Results of the analysis were released Wednesday by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which created and funds electionline.org. Ray Martinez, a Pew policy adviser and former co-chair of the Election Assistance Commission, said that state and local control of elections is a vital part of the American electoral system and should be maintained. But he called for more federal leadership in reforming the process.

One area in which the federal government may be helping is by setting an example. A 2004 executive order on health care IT is spurring development of electronic transaction standards for medical data exchange. A similar standard could go a long way toward improving our election process, said Thad Hall of the University of Utah Center for Public Policy and Administration.

Hall said that voter registration data cannot be moved easily from state to state, or even within states. There are also no standards for counting or reporting election results, making effective audits of results difficult and tying jurisdictions to single vendors for voting equipment.

Lee Jones, of the American National Standards Institute, said that the health care industry, like election systems, needs to move sensitive data freely with ensured privacy and reliability. The federal government took the lead in bringing together a fragmented industry to harmonize standards, and the same process could help establish interoperability in election systems.

Several jurisdictions have found ways to improve their election planning and resource allocation. The state of Georgia four years ago standardized on a single Diebold touchscreen-voting platform for all 159 counties. This helped simplify training for poll workers and public awareness programs, said secretary of state Cathy Cox.

Larimer County, Colo., moved to a system of 30 vote centers to replace 153 precincts. Each center is connected to a centralized poll book, so that voters can cast a ballot in any vote center rather than report to a specific polling place. Election clerk Scott Doyle said this system let him make more effective use of his technical staff and workers.

Regardless of what worked and what did not work in this year’s election, new problems and new lessons are likely to emerge from the 2008 presidential election, said David Magelby of the Brigham Young Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

“We still have not yet tested our systems under maximum stress,” Magelby said.

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