For all the attention lavished on Florida, the drama of uncounted ballots also exists elsewhere. Across the country, some 2.5 million ballots went uncounted in the presidential election, either because they were spoiled deliberately or because of some unintended error. Until this year, no presidential election had been disrupted by this fallout, and maybe no election will be this close again. But it would be wrong to rely on that; even without another dead-heat contest, the now-widespread knowledge that about 2 percent of ballots get ignored hardly will encourage voter turnout.
Add in evidence that ballots are most likely to be discounted in poor areas where the voting machinery is rickety, and you have strong reasons to worry about the nation's electoral mechanics.
The chief worry is the punch-card machinery that produces Florida's famous array of chads. The chads confuse the counting equipment, producing undervotes at a much-higher rate than ballots marked with pens that are counted by optical scanners. But the switch from punching to scanning is expensive, so a third of the nation's voters still use the old technology. Not surprisingly, it is mainly affluent counties that have switched; poor and minority voters tend to be stuck with less-accurate machines.
According to a Washington Post analysis of Florida's Miami-Dade County, precincts where fewer than 30 percent of the voters are black had about 3 percent of ballots that failed to register a vote for president. In precincts where more than 70 percent of the voters are black, the undervote was nearly 10 percent.
There are three plans in the Senate to upgrade voting machinery; they involve funding for a study of rival systems, plus federal money to help local jurisdictions buy new equipment. Some states show signs of acting on their own initiative. Maryland has announced plans to standardize its voting systems. Connecticut is considering a switch to electronic voting booths modeled on the automatic tellers banks use.
Because of the nation's decentralized electoral system, there will be no single fix for voting; instead, a debate will develop among reformers in Congress and state officials: The futurists will push for voting on the Internet or by e-mail; the cautious will suggest that better maintenance of punch-card machines may be adequate; others may broaden the discussion by proposing a shift of elections to weekends to boost turnout. The debate should not lose sight of a distressing lesson of this confused election. The political system, already biased in favor of the monied lobbies that pay for campaigns, now seems further tarnished by electoral machinery that counts affluent voters more carefully than poor ones. -- Washington Post
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