Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Start asking questions now about vote-counting in your area

ASK THIS | September 09, 2005

Do the citizens in your area have good reason to be confident that, if they make it into the voting booth, their votes will actually be counted? Don’t wait until the next election is upon us. Here are some important basic questions to which the public deserves answers.

By Stephanie Frank Singer


(215) 715-3479


Q. How can voters in your state/county/town be sure that their votes are recorded as they intend?  How can voters be sure that votes are counted fairly?


Q. What company makes the voting machines used in your state/county/town?  What partisan ties does that company have? 


Q.  Can citizens be sure of the technical fluency of election officials? Who are the technical experts election officials have turned to in the past?


Q:  How are voting machines protected from tampering before, during, after and between elections?


Q. What routine checks are done on election data?  For instance, are turn-out percentages (divide the number of people who voted by the number of people registered) calculated and compared?  Are discrepancies and anomalies investigated?  What is the last example of such an investigation?


Q. How does the testing and oversight of election machines compare to the testing and oversight of gambling machines?


Q:  What candidates have challenged election results in the last few years?  How aggressively did local authorities investigate and prosecute these challenges? 


Election practice is local.  Election policies in this country are decided at the state and county levels.  There are significant differences from state to state and from county to county.  


There are many vested interests in voting technology and its attendant issues.  Candidates and parties have a vested interest, obviously.   Government employees responsible for elections are invested in their own reputations. Ditto election activists.  Anyone who has tampered with an election has a vested interest in not being caught.  (There is evidence both major parties have benefited from electoral fraud.)  The companies that make voting machinery have vested interests.  Sitting governments have a vested interest in the perception of their legitimacy.


After the ballyhooed paper ballot debacle in 2000, many people thought that electronic voting and tabulating machines would make elections run more smoothly and reliably.  But in 2004 there were both widespread use of electronic systems and widespread problems.


Because of concerns about the 2004 general election, including the unexplained discrepancy between the exit polling data and the official returns (see http://uscountvotes.org/ucvAnalysis/US/USCountVotes_Re_Mitofsky-Edison.pdf), there is a large, newly-formed community of election-integrity activists working to improve our voting and counting systems.  Local election-integrity activists know what is going on in their state and county.  National election-integrity organizations have a broader view.  Some of the most important organizations are:  Verified Voting, National Election Data Archive, Open Voting Consortium, Vote Trust and Voters Unite.  Any of these activists (and I count myself among them) will gladly point you to story leads. 


A lot of the movement in election technology right now stems from HAVA, the Help America Vote Act of 2002. HAVA is making federal money available to states for the purchase of election machines under certain conditions.  There is confusion about some points of interpretation; for instance, it is not clear whether the law allows counties to keep certain lever and punchcard machines.  The deadline for purchase of new machines is January 1, 2006.

The perils of paperless e-voting
Also on NiemanWatchdog.org: Stanford University Professor David Dell proposes questions reporters should ask about paperless e-voting systems.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.