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John Fortier

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

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Opinion

US elections have become much more secure since 2000

May 2

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Donald Trump and his allies successfully convinced many Americans that U.S. voting systems are flawed and unreliable in order to justify his attempts to remain in power after losing to Joe Biden in the 2020 election. Today, much of that skepticism still endures. Americans now confront the problem of how to restore public trust in U.S. elections.

Straight Arrow News contributor John Fortier examines how U.S. elections have become more secure and more reliable since the hotly contested election of 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The progress that we have made in securing our elections since then, Fortier argues, should serve as a reassurance to all concerned Americans. Fortier then identifies some key areas where the United States could stand to achieve even more progress in the years ahead.

There has been tremendous improvement in the way we vote over the past 25 years. After one of the most contested presidential elections in our history in 2000, fundamental changes in the way we register to vote and cast votes have made our electoral system much more secure. Not perfect, but noticeably improved.

To understand these improvements and how difficult it is to reform American voting, it is useful to consider how American voting is different than voting elsewhere in the world in two important respects: We vote on many offices and have long ballots, and we have different rules and norms for voting in each state.

Consider our ballots. In many parliamentary democracies, a ballot often contains only one choice. You cast a vote for your party or party candidate for parliament once every several years. Perhaps there is another local election or EU election that occurs, but usually with only one race on the ballot per election.

Now, consider American voting. We vote for president, senator, House member, governor, state senator, state house member, often attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer. In many states we vote for judges. We often have state and local ballot questions. And if local elections are combined with federal, we vote for mayor or county board members, sheriffs, library trustees, coroners, and dog catchers. At the voting booth, a voter might answer twenty questions or more. Ballots are long. One consequence of these lengthy and complicated ballots is that we must rely on technology to help us count the vote. And some of the great skepticism of elections comes from those who question how that technology works.

We are right to worry about voter confidence.  Large numbers of people express doubts about election results and the integrity of our voting system.

 

On one level, the measures by which we judge voter confidence are flawed.  A phenomenon that political scientists know well is that members of the losing party in an election voice doubts about the integrity of the election.  When your party loses, you doubt the system.  When your party wins a subsequent election, you express confidence, while the other party takes on skepticism.

 

But even noting these methodological issues, we are right to worry about underlying doubts about the conduct of elections.

 

But amid this gloom, there is reason for confidence. There has been tremendous improvement in the way we vote over the past 25 years.  After one of the most contested presidential elections in our history in 2000, fundamental changes in the way we register to vote and cast votes have made our electoral system much more secure.  Not perfect, but noticeably improved.

 

To understand these improvements and how difficult it is to reform American voting, it is useful to consider how American voting is different than voting elsewhere in the world in two important respects: we vote on many offices and have long ballots and we have different rules and norms for voting in each state.

 

Consider our ballots.  In many parliamentary democracies, a ballot often contains only one choice.  You cast a vote for your party or party candidate for parliament once every several years.  Perhaps there is another local election or EU election that occurs, but usually with only one race on the ballot per election.

 

Now, consider American voting.  We vote for president, senator, House member, governor, state senator, state house member, often Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer.  In many states we vote for judges.  We often have state and local ballot questions.  And if local elections are combined with federal, we vote for mayor or county board members, sheriffs, library trustees, coroners, and dog catchers.

 

At the voting booth, a voter might answer twenty questions or more.  Ballots are long.  One consequence of these lengthy and complicated ballots is that we must rely on technology to help us count the vote.  And some of the great skepticism of elections comes from those who question how that technology works.

 

Also, remember that American voting is decentralized.  We vote differently in each of our states.  This means there is no central agency running national elections from Washington.  And there is no central voter registration database.  We have fifty states running elections with their own voter lists.  The questions about voting lists is a second great source of distrust.  Are the lists accurate, do they include most voters, and do they exclude people who are ineligible, dead or have moved to other states?

 

After the 2000 election, with all of the controversy and partisan distrust, we passed a major piece of election legislation, the Help America Vote Act, that started the 20 year course of reform of our voting and registration systems.

 

On voting systems, we got rid of very unreliable technologies such as punch card voting (remember the hanging chads) and lever machines.  We created an agency, the Election Assistance Commission, which helps develop and oversee a process for testing and certification standards of voting machines that states are free to adopt.  We continue to update these standards to keep up with technology.

 

More importantly, while we have improved our technology, we have also moved to have paper ballot backup to the voting machines.  Most votes are cast by a voter filling out a paper ballot and scanning it through a vote tabulation machine.  Others may use technology to fill out the ballot, but the voter can still see the paper ballot created.  Over 90% of voting takes place with the assistance of machines, but with a paper ballot that is preserved.  That ballot can be inspected.  Ballots can even be counted by hand as a check on the voting technology tabulation if necessary.  It is good that voters continue to ask questions about voting technology.  But today, the technology is much better, and almost everywhere, there are paper ballots preserved in addition to the technology.

 

On voter registration.  In 2000, only seven states had statewide, computerized voter registration systems.  That meant that most states did not.  Many states had typed or even handwritten lists at the county level.  It was very hard to know if a voter in one county might be registered in another county.  It was hard to see who was on the list and compare it to other lists.  After 2000, we required each state to make their systems statewide and computerized.  Over time, each state has adopted this type of system.  Our state lists are much improved.

 

There are still improvements to be made.  State lists do not automatically interface with each other, so states are wise to consider programs that allow sharing data with other states for improved lists.  We could have better ways to check the citizenship of voter registrants.  And voter identification laws work much better if ids are coordinated with the voter lists that states maintain.  But compared to 2000, we have dramatically improved our voter registration systems and lists.

 

Citizen skepticism and questions about our voting system can be a sign of an engaged and vigilant electorate.  But a look at the dramatic improvements in our voting over the past twenty years is a positive story that should boost confidence.

 

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