Opinion: 4 Lessons About Voting from the 2010 Elections

Opinion: 4 Lessons About Voting from the 2010 Elections

Ten years after Bush v. Gore and the spectacle of the nation's most important political contest going into overtime, the country's voting experience this Nov. 2 highlights the changes America has seen since 2000. Here are some key lessons we have learned about election reform -- looking back and forward:

New machines aren't the only answer. In the immediate aftermath of the 2000 election, the prime targets for criticism were the machines -- specifically, the punch card ballots whose hanging, swinging and dimpled chads were a source of legal and popular fascination. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 aimed to change that by giving states federal funds (the first ever in support of state elections) to replace and upgrade "outdated" machines.

Yet time and again throughout the decade, we saw states and localities encounter numerous problems associated with adopting new voting technology. Even in 2010, New York (the last state to make the changes encouraged and funded by HAVA) saw election officials, poll workers and voters struggle to adapt to new ballots that many felt were confusing and cumbersome.

"New" machines aren't so new anymore. Interestingly, many of the new machines -- specifically, touch-screen voting machines that were all the rage immediately post-HAVA -- are already showing signs of age. There were numerous reports leading up to and on Election Day about voters having trouble registering their choices properly. These problems -- once thought to be caused by nefarious "vote-flipping," or programming of machines to misinterpret a voter's selection -- are now more commonly viewed as a symptom of something far more mundane: the same misalignment issues that cause smart phone users to select one item on their touch-screen when they meant to select another.

Still, a court required North Carolina to post a notice alerting voters to potential problems, and poll workers in Virginia Beach provided cotton-tipped swabs to help voters accurately make their intended choices on the electronic machines. This suggests that many of the new machines may be reaching the end of their useful lives before money can be found to replace them.

Election Night is now just "the end of the beginning." One lasting effect of the 2000 presidential election was to shatter the notion that Election Night is the end of an election cycle. It is no longer true, as many campaign staff used to believe, that one can work 96 hours straight before Election Day and "sleep on Wednesday." Our increasingly razor-close elections, widespread awareness of the counting process and its intricacies and -- most importantly -- the growing number of ballots cast outside of a polling place before Election Day mean that Election Night is now merely the end of the beginning -- a midway point between when ballots are cast and votes are counted. Campaign staff can still count on sleeping on a Wednesday -- but likely one much closer to Thanksgiving.

Money matters to election officials. Beyond campaign finance, money is also an issue in the non-political world of election administration. Oscar Wilde once said that a cynic is someone "who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." In some ways, election reform has had exactly the opposite problem. As policy makers and advocates have sought to fix problems with our nation's system, they have often proposed and enacted changes with little regard for their budgetary impact on states and localities. In other words, reformers have focused on the value of everything and the price of nothing.

This approach will no longer work for governments strapped by the current fiscal crisis. Going forward, policy makers will need to make smart investments on machines, laws and approaches that work efficiently and effectively. Election officials will have to serve citizens not only as potential voters who use the election system but also as taxpayers who will foot the bill.

The last decade has seen an unprecedented amount of change in the nation's electoral process. But there is still room for improvement. As states continue reforming the way elections are conducted, we should expect even more advancements toward a more efficient, cost-effective and secure system.

Doug Chapin is the director of Election Initiatives for the Pew Center on the States.