Saturday, December 04, 2004

Electronic Voting for Racial Equality

According to the Associated Press, Georgia's introduction of electronic voting reduced uncounted votes for both predominantly Black and white precincts, but the reduction was more dramatic for Blacks than whites:
An analysis of results from precincts where more than 80 percent of registered voters are black showed even more dramatic drops. In 77 of those precincts studied by the Secretary of State's office, the percentage of so-called "undervotes" in the 2000 presidential election was 6.7 percent -- almost twice the state average. This year, that percentage dropped to 0.69 percent.

A similar look at precincts with more than 80 percent white voters showed a smaller, but still significant, decrease -- from 3.15 percent in 2000 to 0.21 percent this year. (Doug Gross/The Associated Press, "Georgia Election Data Shows Black Precincts Saw Biggest Voting," December 2, 2004)
The racial gap in uncounted votes was 3.55% in 2000; the gap is now down to 0.48%. To put it differently, the proportion of uncounted votes in the predominantly black precincts was 2.1 times larger than that in the predominantly white precincts in 2000; the former is only 1.4 times larger than the latter in 2004.

Daniel Tokaji, an assistant professor of law at the Ohio State University, comments on Georgia's accomplishment: "Georgia's numbers are also consistent with prior research finding that switching from punch cards to electronic voting systems dramatically lowers the percentage of uncounted votes, particularly in minority precincts" (Equal Vote, December 3, 2004). Tokaji recommends Michael Tomz and Robert P. Van Houweling's "How Does Voting Equipment Affect the Racial Gap in Voided Ballots?" (June 12, 2002) for further reading on the impacts of voting technologies on the racial gap. Tomz and Van Houweling's "analysis of a unique precinct-level dataset from South Carolina and Louisiana shows that the black-white gap in voided ballots depends crucially on the voting equipment people use. In areas with punch cards or optically scanned ballots, the black-white gap ranged from four to six percentage points. Lever and electronic machines, which prohibit overvoting and make undervoting more transparent and correctible, cut the discrepancy by a factor of ten" (June 12, 2002), which is exactly what happened in Georgia.

While critics of paperless voting have valid concerns about lack of security and transparency, paper ballots, "a voter verified paper audit trail,” and "the contemporaneous paper record" are also subject to errors and frauds, as Tokaji argues. Defenders of voting rights should carefully weigh comparative risks and benefits. Technophobia would do disservice to Black voters.

At the same time, we should take an opportunity presented by the election controversy in Ohio to put more fundamental reforms on the national political agenda, rather than focusing merely on how votes are counted. Here's a short list. Ease ballot access to expand the range of voices represented in political discourse. Either make the government responsible for registering voters or liberalize voter registration laws drastically. Turn election day into a national holiday (guaranteeing a higher voter turnout even without a costly get-out-the-vote campaign), which should be a popular measure among working-class Americans across the political spectrum. End the disenfranchisement of former felons, which has disenfranchised mainly working-class voters and affected Black and Latino voters disproportionately. Abolish the electoral college and make the presidential election a direct popular election: "Gallup surveys over the last half-century show Americans consistently and decisively reject the entire Electoral College setup and endorse direct popular vote of the president" (Neal Peirce, "It May Be Time to Graduate from the Electoral College," October 4, 2004). Institute instant runoff voting.

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