By Caitlin Maple.
The “hanging chad”. The “dimpled chad”.
These were the terms used to describe an epic failure of our voting systems.
Oh, those hang-y, dimple-y pieces of paper taunting us with the notion that the very foundation of our democratic system was hanging by a, well…chad.
The year was 2000, and humidity wasn’t the only reason sweat was glistening on the brows of election officials across Florida. We had ourselves a scandal. The nation was ramped up for a heated presidential battle: Al Gore and George Bush were neck and neck, and I had my popcorn ready for this showdown.
Then, news from Florida!
Ah, this was the first time we were acquainted with the word “chad” other than that guy we stand next to in the Starbucks line. From “Gore won”, to “Bush won”, to “too close to call”, it became apparent there was an issue.
Some of Florida’s antiquated voting systems required voters to punch out triangular shapes in their ballots to mark their choices. These punch card ballots had an inherent flaw: they weren’t exactly reliable. Those little triangles could be punched out on accident (or hypothetically on purpose) leading to multiple choices and thus a disqualified ballot, or not punched out enough leaving that dangling triangle, or my personal favorite: dimpled, as if the intention of selection was there but not quite followed through with. How can we know for sure? It doesn’t really matter, they were disqualified.
While Florida got the bad rap, the reality is these systems had been in use since the late 1960’s all over the United States, including here in California. Sucks to be you, Florida.
We were told there needed to be a recount, or two…and a Supreme Court ruling for good measure. Oh, and for added drama why not just throw in the brother of one of the candidates is the Governor and toss in a riot? Perfect.
As I cleaned the popcorn off of my shirt and tried to waiver my stare from the television screen, I realized I was witnessing so much more than just a debacle of a presidential election — we had stumbled across a seriously flawed electoral system. From how votes were recorded, transmitted and counted, to the inconsistency of these practices even within the state, people began wondering how pervasive this was.
Certainly not in MY state, right?
Nope, turns out we were all pretty bad at operating elections. Task forces were created, media attention was garnered, and now people were really paying attention to the non-sexy side of elections: administration.
The year was 2002. The public had turned their attention to other matters such as the Euro adoption (and the realization that the dollar wasn’t all that almighty anymore), tornadoes ripping up the Midwest and boy bands clogging the airways. Hiding behind the cloak of terrible pop music, the federal government was still blushing over the events in 2000 and had decided to take action. Thus, the Help America Vote Act (affectionately referred to as HAVA) was born.
Basically, the federal government said, “Hey states, your election systems are pretty screwed up right now. We’re going to throw a ton of money at you, but you need to get rid of those crappy, chad-producing voting systems and have at least bare minimum standards for operating elections. Also, we’re going to create this thing called the Election Assistance Commission just to make sure we’re all on the same page and you don’t embarrass us again. Ok thanks, bye.”
And so it began.
Every state in the U.S. had to shape up or else they were in big trouble. They had a ton of money to do it too, so everyone was happy. Hell, in California we even threw in an extra $200 million of voter-approved bond money to make things interesting, and we all lived happily ever after with modern, reliable election administration.
Well, at least for a while.
The year is 2016. It’s been 14 years since the HAVA glory days and we’re starting to make some realizations about life, love and the pursuit of well-operated elections. Here are some thoughts:
Technology has a shelf life, apparently.
Do you own a cell phone from 2002? Probably not. You probably don’t even have a cell phone that’s older than your Uber account. So we may ask ourselves: what did we think would happen when local governments didn’t have the money to purchase voting systems before 2002 and then were given a one-time sum of cash to buy them with no long-term plan for how to pay for maintenance or replacing them in the future?
I feel like this a good place for that “teach a man to fish” cliché.
Yes, you guessed it. We’re on the cusp of a looming voting system crisis, yet again. Only this time it’s because they’re all old and falling apart, and there is no HAVA number two coming to replace them. Yikes.
Relationships are important.
I’m not talking about the one you almost married in college. I’m talking about Uncle Sam and well…Uncle Sam. No, this isn’t an incenstual reality TV show, but rather how state and local governments deal with one another. In California, that relationship could use some counseling.
When there’s trouble in paradise it’s usually the culmination of many small situations that comprise the whole mess. That time he left the toilet seat up. That time she made you wear a couples costume for Halloween. All the times their parents implied you weren’t good enough. It just builds over time.
And so it has progressed with counties and the state in California.
The year was 1972. Everything was all groovy between the state and counties — the counties did what they wanted and paid for their elections using property tax revenue from homeowners and businesses, and the state was that old friend they called up once a year to catch up. Then came a bill passed by the legislature called Senate Bill 90, and things started to change. Now the state had the power to tell the counties what to do and how to do it, as long as they gave them some cash to pay for it.
Alright, I guess. As long as the state is paying for it, the counties didn’t really see much of a problem in streamlining election processes, such as providing for disabled voters. Many of the things the state wanted were good policies. Additionally, on top of collecting revenue from property taxes, now they were also getting an allowance from the state.
Life was good.
And then it was 1978, and things started to get weird. The people passedProposition 13, an initiative that limited the amount of money counties were able to collect from property taxes. This widely popular initiative (woo, lower taxes!) has had rippling effects well into current times. For counties, this has left little way to make their own money to pay for stuff, such as elections, and has also meant more reliance on state money.
Until the state doesn’t pay, then what?
The year was 2004, and yet another initiative had been approved by the people of California. It was called Proposition 1A and it allowed the state to “suspend” the things they told counties to do. This meant that the state no longer had to pay for the cost of that thing, but also that the counties were no longer required to do it.
Fair enough, right?
Not really. Since 2010, all of the streamlined election processes that the state told counties they must do have been suspended. Technically speaking, the counties are no longer required to them, but the reality is they still do…because it wouldn’t make sense not to. These things include voting by mail (currently the most popular option in the state), same day voter registration and verifying signatures of voters. You know, super important stuff we need to actually vote.
As the California Voter Foundation points out in a letter to the legislature, “Imagine what could happen in statewide, congressional or legislative contests if counties within the same political district give voters different vote-by-mail rights, or do not verify all provisional ballot envelope signatures in the same manner as prescribed by state law, since these services and procedures are now technically optional. Contests would go undecided for days and weeks, litigation and court battles would ensue, and results would be called into question.”
But no big deal.
So here we are now. The state hasn’t paid for elections in six years, the counties can’t get more money from property taxes and we definitely can’t stop providing the most essential function of our democracy to an increasing population. Oh yeah, and our voting systems are falling apart.
It’s complex, like really complex.
Every state in the union runs their elections differently, and I don’t mean like one uses a green ballot and the other prefers magenta. I mean everything from where the money comes from, to which level of government is responsible for what, to which voting systems are used. Heck, California alone not only varies from other states, but every county does something different than another.
That’s the beauty of “local control”, a concept that refers to the ability of counties to make most of the decisions on how government operates in their territory. They have the ability to choose which voting systems will be used, which vendors to purchase supplies and ballot from, and how elections will be administered. Some counties operate completely vote-by-mail elections, while others have thousands of precincts. Some use modern voting equipment (Los Angeles is even building their own…because they’re Los Angeles and they can), while others are trying to get by with dinosaur-like equipment.
But what does that mean for you and I?
I often wonder about what the difference in experience is for someone who votes in one county versus another. I wonder about how voting on a fancy smartphone-esque machine might be different than sending in a mailed ballot (via a dying U.S. Postal Service, by the way) or using the equivalent of the first flip phone. I also wonder how these differences might affect how I vote, or what answers I would get to the same questions.
The answer is no one really knows. So, now what?
Nothing can be certain, but it is unlikely the state will be willing to shell out the cash in the near future. Even if they do, will it be another short-term, one-time investment as has been the custom? Call me crazy, but it seems to me it’s time to start thinking about what the future of modern systems and elections looks like in California. We need to start asking ourselves how we can repair this estranged relationship between our state and local governments and find innovative and long-lasting funding solutions for the very foundation of democracy.
Or we can just wait until there’s another hanging chad, I guess.