The Days When Democracy In America Was Bogus
First, three stories. One comes from other sources, not verified, but everyone at the time (it is said) knew it to be true. Political operatives in the Boston area used to visit the train yards during the days and hours before a local mayoral election. They would round up the numerous “bums and hobos” (now known as homeless people) living in the train yards. Those interested, which appear to have been most, would accept a bit of cash and a broken comb. The cash was their payoff. The comb was broken in such a way that if you set it next to the paper ballot at the voting location, the missing teeth would indicate where to place your mark.
Second story: something I observed as a kid. I would be taken to the election site every year, the fire house on Delaware and Marshall in Albany New York, by one of the adults voting in our house, usually my grandmother. On at least one occasion, I observed a man sitting on a tall ladder, I assume supplied by the fire department. Here is how you voted. You would go up to a desk and give your name. The person at the desk would say your name out loud, and the guy on the ladder would look you up on a list. Then, you would go into the voting booth and pull the big red lever, which would close the curtain. The mechanical voting machine had one lever for each candidate, which were organized in columns. President, governor, mayor, various other candidates, stacked up, all of the candidates in one party per column. At the top of the column was the lever to “vote the ticket.” If you wanted to vote for all Democrats, you just flip the lever at the top of that column.
These levers were all visible to the guy on the ladder. That is why he was on the ladder. If you pulled the Democratic Party lever, you got a check mark next to your name.
Then, the next summer, you take your kid down to city hall to get a summer job. Or, you get pulled over by the cops for speeding or get a parking ticket. Or the tax assessors come to set a value for your home to determine your property tax. Or you call in a big pothole in front of your house, to get if fixed. If your name has the check on it, your kid gets the job, your traffic ticket is fixed, your taxes are lower, and your pothole gets fixed. There was a staff of ticket fixers up on the top floor of City Hall, in the tax assessors domain, correlating, mostly, parking tickets to checkmarks. And so on.
Third: I helped a bit with the recount of a major election a couple of years ago. I heard something interesting while doing that. A democratic official working on the recount noted that he was, years ago, in the US Navy, and had the job of collecting write-in ballots for a large unit (a destroyer or something). What they really did, he said, was to get the write-in ballots, get a few guys together, and write in all the votes, for as it turns out, the Republican presidential candidate. That man should be in jail, but instead, he is in charge of elections. (The fact that he switched party is meaningless.)
My point is simply this: In America, we have a long tradition of fixing the vote. How much votes are or have been fixed varies, certainly, across states and cities. I lived in a totally rigged city, with a political machine running things. I’m intimately aware of how that machine worked, because I was one of the kids who got the summer job, and this eventually put me in direct contact with the operatives. I saw the traffic tickets getting fixed, and so on. The other thing that varies across states and cities is the degree to which the citizens assume voting is always clean vs. assume it is often dirty, or something in between. But the two, how often voting is fixed and how much people assume it is or is not, are probably not very well correlated. The vast majority of Americans, I suspect, don’t think this is a thing we do in this country.
I hope, and there is evidence for this, that the blatant and systematic fixing of votes we saw in Depression Era Boston or Machine Era Albany, is a thing of the past. Our democracy was far more bogus back than than it is now.
We Are Still Doing Voting Wrong
Maybe, maybe not. But one thing a lot of people fear is that with electronic voting, the old days of comb- or ladder-assisted election fraud are coming back.
We are not doing voting right in the US. First, we have vastly different ways of doing it across states. It is highly unlikely that each state has special problems that require different approaches. Rather it can be assumed that one or two states do it best (though maybe not well enough) and all the other states are inferior. That should give pause.
We’ve seen enough messing around with electronic voting, or voting where machines are too much involved, to suspect this is a game-able system. A recent case in Kentucky underscores this problem.
For the gubernatorial race between Democrat Conway, Republican Bevin, and some other guy, the polls looked like this:
From Huffpo Pollster, looking only at likely voters in non-partisan polls, we have this:
So the race should have been close, with Conway likely to win.
Here is what happened.
Major reversals happen, and this could be that. Note that the other guy (Curtis) lost three points the final polling than in the predictive polls, so third party voters switching to a mainstream candidate could explain this. But, in down ticket races, the Democrats all did as expected in relation to the Republicans. Also, Kentucky tends to elect Democratic governors. So, this is not a 100% clear cut case of something gone wrong, but this is a race one would want to look at. Poll analyzer Richard Charnin has an analysis that certainly brings up questions. (See also this summary.)
We also know that the two major parties have differences in how often ballots are improperly counted, depending on the kind of ballot system used, such that more Democratic voter’s ballots are disregarded. This was obvious in the Coleman-Franken recount. In that case, Coleman won the election by a couple of hundred votes, which required a recount. After the recount, which was done very carefully and properly, Franken had won by an order of magnitude more votes. Most of that change consisted of Democratic voters messing up their ballots by accident. If you have a big tent party, there’s gonna be a few people in the tent who can’t draw a straight line (we use straight lines to pick our candidates in Minnesota).
How To Do Voting Right
I think we should reject electronic voting entirely. Casting an electronic ballot is asking for the vote to be hacked. Just don’t do that.
Machine assisted voting is a good idea. People will mess up a paper ballot quite often. If a machine was used to properly produce a paper ballot, the paper ballots could be checked for accuracy, would be devoid of confusing marks or other goofs, and be valid 99.99% of the time.
We could, of course, use basic counting machines to get a preliminary count of those ballots. This should be followed by an audit that verifies the overall processing of ballots and samples a subset of ballots in order to determine that everything went well. How large that sample is should be determined by the closeness of the vote.
Automatic recounts are normal for many districts, but the threshold to trigger a recount varies. That threshold should follow national best practices, and be larger than most thresholds currently are (a few percent at least).
In the end, the official ballots will be paper ballots with a low frequency of mistakes, which can be hand-and-eye recounted to verify the machine counts. In the event of a full recount, every ballot would be examined as per normal.
This is not hard. What I’m suggesting here is, as far as I can tell, the best way to do voting. Since write-in ballots would not be machine-made, adding a provision to send back bad ballots submitted prior to a certain date may be necessary, especially in states where a very large percentage of the votes are sent in.
I think the average citizen in the US is too trusting of how the system works. Well, really, most people either trust the system not at all, or assume there is not really any intentional election rigging. But election rigging has always been part of the voting process in the US, being a major factor at some times and places, and hopefully a minor factor most of the time in most place. But electronic machine voting provides yet another opportunity for both voter suppression and election fraud, and if more electronic voting is implemented, we should see more voter fraud. There is too much at stake, and people generally are not as trustworthy as we would like. We need a system that simply does not allow this to happen at all.