ELECTION INSIGHTS 2016
Research-based perspectives from MIT
On the Integrity of the U.S. Electoral System | Charles Stewart III
Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science
"The current election administration system is far from perfect and continues to stand in need of improvement. However, intimations that it is fundamentally corrupt and rigged against one candidate or the other are not only false, but needlessly undermine the legitimacy of those who are elected to office."
— Charles Stewart, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science
ELECTION INSIGHTS 2016
Research-based perspectives from MIT
Concerns about the fairness and trustworthiness of U.S. elections have emerged as a factor in the 2016 presidential election. Based on your research and expertise on elections and voting, what is the most important finding or perspective about the status of the U.S. electoral system that would be useful for an American voter to know? Since the 2001 election, what changes have been put into place to ensure fair elections and accurate results? And, finally, if you could make one recommendation to help further improve the U.S. electoral system, what would it be?
Although some partisans have roused concern about the integrity of the 2016 Presidential election, in reality, the administration of American elections is in better shape now than it has been in a long time, following on nearly two decade’s worth of improvements to voting machines, ballot design, voter-registration systems, and polling place management.
The Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP) was created on the heels of the disastrous recount battle in Florida in 2000. It was charged to examine the American electoral process and recommend how technology could be used to improve it. Its first task was to scope out the extent of problems that led to lost votes, defined as votes that ended up not counted because of no fault of the voter. (A hanging chad is a good example of a lost vote.)
Accounting for votes lost and recovered since 2000
Relying on statistics reported by state election officials and the U.S. Census Bureau, the VTP calculated that in 2000, 1.5—2 million votes were lost because of faculty equipment and confusing ballots, 1.5—3 million votes were lost because of registration mix ups, and up to a million votes were lost because of polling place operations.
The VTP issued its estimates of lost votes at a time when the nation was working intensely to correct the types of election administration problems that had been highlighted by the Florida recount fiasco. Most states appointed commissions to review voting procedures and assess the quality of their voting machines. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which took a number of actions to improve elections.
Among these were the appropriation of over $2 billion for the purchase of new voting machines and the improvement of election administration; mandates that states retire antiquated machines, computerize and modernize voter registration systems, and create safeguards against inadvertent purging of the voting rolls; and the creation of the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission to foster continuous improvement of election administration.
In research conducted a decade after the passage of HAVA, I reported that as a result of changes to election administration and the replacement of old voting machines, roughly 1.7 million more votes were counted in presidential elections starting in 2004. An additional 1.4 million votes were recovered because of improvements in voter registration. As a consequence, in 2016, 3 million more Americans will have their votes counted than if the voting improvements fostered by HAVA had never happened.
"Recent news accounts have highlighted a problem that we only vaguely understood in 2000 — the possibility that computer hackers would disrupt elections. Interestingly, the most frustrating thing about American election administration — its radical decentralization — provides a sturdy line of defense against hacking attacks."
All is not tea and roses, of course. Some of the goals of the post-2000 reform efforts have never been fulfilled. The goal of improving accessibility for the physically disabled remains to be met. In addition, the legislative process that led to HAVA’s passage inadvertently unleashed forces that have led to a decade’s worth of fighting over voter identification laws. In light of the fact that estimates of the amount of in-person voting fraud tend toward zero, energy put into fighting about voter identification takes away from efforts to make elections even better.
Finally, many states have doubled-down on voter convenience by shifting toward all-mail voting. This reform, which has mixed results in improving turnout, introduces more opportunities for voter error, has led to an increase in lost votes because of increased ballot-marking errors, delays with delivering mail, and rejected ballots.
The new challenge: hacking elections
Recent news accounts have highlighted a problem that we only vaguely understood in 2000 — the possibility that computer hackers would disrupt elections. Interestingly, the most frustrating thing about American election administration — its radical decentralization — provides a sturdy line of defense against hacking attacks. In the recent words of James Comey, the FBI director, “the 50-state voting system is so dispersed and ‘clunky’ it would be difficult for hackers to affect the outcome.” No computer-based voting machines are attached to the Internet. Thus, while isolated attacks on voting systems could be successful, it’s unlikely that a widespread coordinated attack could be.
However, some parts of the election system are networked, most notably voter registration. With the fail-safe protection of provisional ballots, even if a hacker got in and deleted voter registration records, an affected voter could still cast a ballot. More likely, a hack of the voter registration system would perpetuate yet another incidence of identity theft or cause long lines on Election Day.
The current election administration system is far from perfect and continues to stand in need of improvement. However, intimations that it is fundamentally corrupt and rigged against one candidate or the other are not only false, but needlessly undermine the legitimacy of those who are elected to office. Perhaps that is the intention of these intimations. If nothing else, they distract from the hard work that remains to be done.
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