NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

In Search Of The Perfect Voting Vehicle

November 9, 2000

With charges of voting irregularities swirling in the wake of Tuesday's elections, the mechanics of voting could well become a policy issue as important as the ideological issues which bear on our ultimate candidate preferences.

Observers point out that one in five Americans who went to the polls was forced to cast a ballot on a machine introduced in 1892 -- one that is notorious for malfunctioning and susceptible to rigging.

  • Thanks to the wide array of sometimes imperfect voting systems adopted by various states and localities, Tuesday's glitches ranged from clogged polling sites to malfunctioning voting machines, incomplete voting rolls and poorly designed ballots.
  • The irregularities suggest a spate of legal challenges ahead -- prompting further political discord and division at a time when neither is in short supply.
  • The Constitution delegates the duty of conducting elections to the states which, in turn, pass the responsibility along to counties and municipalities -- leaving the poorest units of government to choose their voting technology and supply the funds to staff polling places.

What kinds of choices of voting apparatus are available to local and state authorities?

  • The oldest technology is mechanical-lever machines -- which range in age from 25 to 50 years old and are used by about one-fifth of the electorate -- but are no longer being made.
  • Paper ballots are still used by about 1.7 percent of voters.
  • Punch cards, developed for the 1890 census and subject to voter misinterpretation, are still used by about 37 percent of voters.
  • Optical scanning -- which uses lasers to read printed or hand-marked symbols on ballots -- is used by about one-quarter of voters, but it has some flaws and is costly.

Experts predict that voting over the Internet may be the wave of the future, but that depends on developing security and privacy safeguards, and solving technical glitches.

Source: Glenn Simpson, Ted Bridis and Michael Orey, "With All the Glitches, the Wonder Is Why the System Survives," Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2000.


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