Norton Garfinkle

Casting and Counting Our Votes More Fairly

VTR Date: April 11, 2001

Guest: Garfinkle, Norton


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Norton Garfinkle
Title: “Casting and Counting Our Votes More Fairly”
VTR: 4/11/2001

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And our subject today surely demands open mindedness as well as a willingness to look very carefully at the failure last year to cast and then to count fully and carefully, Florida’s popular votes for President of the United States. Even more, we must admit parallel failures past and present, and work hard to remedy all of them. Well, to that end then, my OPEN MIND guest today is Norton Garfinkle, Chairman of the prestigious Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, here today, to discuss the Institute’s timely reflections on election reform. Appropriately enough, the report begins by quoting you to our governor Mike Levitz’ observation that there is a time in the life of every problem when it is big enough to see, yet small enough to solve. And certainly the report says the long controversy over the Florida recount made the problems with our voting system big enough to see. Indeed, the Florida controversy magnified and dramatized faults that voting experts agree have been endemic to our election systems for many years. Nonetheless, these problems, while serious and widespread, also appear to be small enough to solve. Further the report indicates that it is true that the Florida recount controversy raised some thorny constitutional and political questions: debate about the merits of the electoral college, disputes about the role and reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court, concerns about the accuracy and media impact of exit polling, and questions about the part racial discrimination may play in election results.

But, insists Mr. Garfinkle and his colleagues at the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, the core issues in the Florida recount controversy originated in failures of technology and in an outmoded technology at that. And, since even the most casual survey of the new generation of election technology suggests that technical solutions to these problems already exist in practice, the issue of election issues reform is likely to be one of political will and resource application. To which I say to my guest, how so?

GARFINKLE: Well, the, the most surprising thing to us at the Institute when we went to do this study was that all of the technical issues, or the technological issues fell into place. It was absolutely surprising how clear the answer was. Ah, we still have some 55%of the population that votes using outmoded methods. That’s the statement of the problem. And the, the terrible punch-cards, chads, and all, still represents 33% of the voting in the United States. We still have a residual of 2% of paper ballots, and the…machines, which actually outmoded, actually work quite well. Nobody makes many more, it’s hard to get parts, so they are being replaced as time goes on. But the problem is how do you replace that 55%, and what are the criteria that you use? There are technological criteria, and then there are cost criteria. Those are the two that need to be intermixed.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by technological criteria?

GARFINKLE: Well, there are two different kinds of systems that have been proposed as technological solutions, and they’ve actually been deployed here in a fairly large part of the country. One system is called the Optical Mark Reader, and it’s a system which uses paper ballots, but they’re filled in not by using a punch card, but by anyone who’s ever taken an SAT exam uses to fill in the blanks, to fill in the circles against the names that you want to use. And some 27% of the country these days has already adopted Optical Mark Readers. There’s a competing technology, which is a touch-screen system somewhat analogous to an ATM machine, and that’s been adopted by 9% of the population. So, as we look at the technological issue we’re simply faced with the question…we have to replace 55% of the country that uses outmoded technology. Which of these two should we replace with? And as we addressed that, the answer seemed to be relatively clear.

HEFFNER: Well now, wait a minute. You say outmoded. What do you mean…what do you put into the outmoded?

GARFINKLE: The, the…one of the critical criteria is the margin of error that occurs using the system. And the typical margin of error…there is a margin or error using any technology you use…but the typical margin of error for punch cards is about 3%. The typical margin of error for the Optical Mark Reader machines is at the 2.3% level, so they already have an edge. Strangely enough, the most advanced technology, the touch-screen technology has a margin of error of 3%, very close to the punch cards. So, as, with respect to the criteria of how error prone is the system, at least as currently practiced, ah, it’s relatively clear that the punch card system has too much margin of error and the Optical Mark Reader system is an improvement over the punch card system.

HEFFNER: But do you think that most people, most of the people who are watching us right now realize that there is such a thing as a margin for error?

GARFINKLE: I think that that is what Florida has taught us. And I think it’s a very important lesson that our technology for counting votes, for recording and counting votes is error prone and 3% is a very high number. And we have a major task in society to…as we’re dealing with election reform in all areas, including the whole question of campaign finance…this is one of the areas that we have to address, and we have to get the margin of error down. We have to remove the kind of confusion that we had in Florida with a standardized system which is an improvement over the margin of error. Then we can start working to make that improvement even better and bring it down. We’ll never get down to zero, but we can get down to better than the confusion of punch cards and the 3%, the 3.1% that we have as the margin of error with punch cards.

HEFFNER: Is it fair question to ask you what you consider an acceptable margin of error?

GARFINKLE: I don’t think any margin of error is acceptable. I think we have to work towards getting the least possible margin of error and as a practical matter we have to take what we can at the moment and move forward. So taking what we can at the moment and using the new technology as the lowest margin of error is the next step. Now we’ve also found that voter education and voter training at the polls is totally inadequate, that if a voter is in trouble at the polls and needs some help, he or she typically does not get it. And therefore, we have been looking at some of the ingenious ideas to improve on that situation. The two most ingenious ideas that we, we’ve heard about, and, and work needs to be done…the issue of what machines do you use, what technology do you use, is relatively straightforward. You look at the improvement in the margin of error, you look at the cost, and you look at the decision of how much to spend to bring down the margin of error. But the, the issue of how to help voters do a better job of making their votes count requires some ingenuity. Now one interesting suggestion is something we’re all familiar with, which is a television loop in the voting place that simply tells the voter, if they want to stop and look at it, how to record their vote most easily within the framework of the technology that’s being offered at that polling booth. Another…and I think even more important…is we need to on election day, have better trained, better educated people who are there to assist voters to do their voting, and who are responsive to the voters rather than arbitrary and bureaucratic and unresponsive.

HEFFNER: And we don’t, I gather you’re saying. We don’t at this point.

GARFINKLE: I don’t think we have that hardly at all anywhere.

HEFFNER: So voter education and voter assistance…

GARFINKLE: …voter education and voter assistance both mechanically through a television loop and personally through individual people.

HEFFNER: Now let’s go back a minute. You were talking before about the cost-effectiveness approach to this matter. What do you think in terms of what has happened in this country since the November, 2000 problems arose what the reaction has been? What do you think we’re going to do as a people? How willing are we going to be to make the investment that you say, very simply, is necessary?

GARFINKLE: Well, there are two considerations that go in opposite directions. One consideration is, when you’re in the midst of things, when you’re in the midst of something like Florida, or immediately thereafter, it’s a rare occurrence that the election will hinge on a small number of votes. All the people in the election business, as it were, have gotten used to the margin of error. It usually doesn’t make a different in the electoral process. Before, they don’t have an urgency about changing from old systems to new systems. In the throes of the Florida event, suddenly there’s a high profile, a sense of need to do something about it. But as Florida fades away there’s a tendency to drift back to the situation where, well it’s not going to matter very much. It’s going to be a rare occurrence. Why should we feel urgent about solving the problem? And so today, right now, we still have a sense of urgency. The fearful concern is that sense of urgency will drift away. The other consideration is the cost. And, people…the cost is a little large…in many cases, because it’s usually at the county level, that the county commissioners have to make a decision to buy new technology. And new technology costs money, and they’re trading off the cost of new voting technology, which in normal times doesn’t seem to matter very much, because after all, we can live with a margin of error that doesn’t make a difference in the election. So, so, then they then have to trade off – do they want to spend that money in schools, or do they want to spend it on voting machinery. The pleasant finding here is by, let’s call it federal government standards, the amount of money that’s needed to introduce new technology everywhere is, if we’re dealing with the Optimal Mark Reader, which seems to be the most cost efficient method, then we’re talking about…it depends on which version…we can spend a moment talking about the two versions of the Optimal Mark Readers…we’re either talking about 400 million dollars or something under 2 billion dollars on a national level to replace all of the current obsolete machines, including the punch card systems. And it’s not very difficult for the US government to allocate a billion dollars in matching funds for the local people to be able to buy those machines without having that terrible trade off between “do we spend money on voting machines or do we spend more money on schools?”

HEFFNER: Would you mean a billion dollars from the federal government? Do you assume that the federal government will make the determination as to which approach and which technology?

GARFINKLE: No, the federal government can’t do that. We have a federal system, and voting is a state matter. So that what the federal government can do is to provide matching funds for the state to utilize. It can specify that the matching funds can be used to…can be spent on approved technology, but it can’t specify and shouldn’t specify a specific technology. That decision should be made at the state level. But the important…there’s another feature of this…One of the things that happened in Florida is that you didn’t have a uniformed state system. Nobody ever said to the state, “why do you have punch cards in one county and Optimal Mark Readers in another county?” And so forth. I think the Florida experience has told us now that the states can enter the process, and that by matching some federal funds can mandate a single system for the whole state.

HEFFNER: You say “can”. Didn’t the Supreme Court’s intervention in the Gore/Bush controversy in itself federalize the situation indicating that 14th amendment and other considerations made this a national problem? Therefore it has to be solved within a national framework.

GARFINKLE: I think what the Supreme Court said that if a case comes to it, they will apply the equal treatment under the law criteria. That does not translate into a mandate at the state level or at the county commissioner level to act upon this last decision, especially since some of the opinion writers were quick to say that whatever decision they were making should not be applied to anything else.

HEFFNER: Right. But what’s good for the goose is so frequently good for the gander. In this instance you’re really set on this notion that it’s not a federal matter, or that it is not a national, a US government matter. It is a federal system and in that federal system election state matters have been controlled.

GARFINKEL: I think that’s the law. I think that’s the Constitution. I don’t think there’s any way around that. Within that framework we’ve developed matching fund approaches, and indeed if the federal government took this seriously and allocated the billion dollars as matching funds for the states, I’m sure that things would move along in an efficient way.

HEFFNER: You know, you said before that after all, this doesn’t happen very often, that often. And yet we’re at a stage of our political development now, if I can call it development, in which we see enormously close races. We did in terms of Kennedy and Nixon, we did of Nixon and Humphrey, we have now in terms of Bush and Gore. Mustn’t this impact upon our thinking about the necessity for making each person’s vote count in terms of making sure that the margin of error is smaller and smaller and smaller?

GARFINKLE: I think you’re absolutely right on that and I actually think that we have a movement now in the country to understand what the idea of representative government is and what steps need to be taken, not just in voting reform but in a broader sense, to legitimate, to establish that the government that we elect is legitimate. And if we thought about for the moment the ideal, and thought for a moment about what the initiatives are to achieve the ideal, the ideal starts with that all citizens should vote. It shouldn’t be that only 50% of the citizens vote, because if only 50% of the citizens vote then those 50% are the people who will be represented, who will be cared about by the people who elect them.

HEFFNER: What is the percentage now?

GARFINKLE: The percentage is 50%.

HEFFNER: And is that higher or lower than it has been in the past generation?

GARFINKLE: It’s actually been relatively consistent. There’s some interesting statistics. If we go to the period of 1924 to 1948, the figure for voter turnout was 54%.

HEFFNER: You’re talking about national elections?

GARFINKEL: National presidential elections. The figures in 1952 to 1968 went up to 61%. And then in 1972 to 2000 it’s drifted back down to 52%. Now it’s an interesting historical question. Why did it go up? Rather than why is it down, and if you want my hypothesis on it the years of 1952 to 1968 were draft years. We had a national draft. The national draft was in the hands of the federal government. The president was a very important feature of that and families felt very much impacted. So the voting is a function of how much you feel impacted by the federal government. There’s some tendencies these days for a lot of voters to say that it isn’t going to make much difference who gets elected and why should I bother to vote. But, again, what’s really interesting is that the people who are really impacted do vote. So within today’s framework, if you look at the group that is 45 and over, 65% vote. Not 50. If you look at the group that’s 18-24 in age, 32% vote. So the voting…since the older group is directly impacted by programs such as Medicare and Social Security, and the younger group is not yet thinking about that kind of thing…

HEFFNER: And there’s no draft.

GARFINKLE: And there’s no draft, right. So it’s not surprising that we have that kind of differential. We have the same kind of differential on income. People with incomes of $75,000 a year and over vote at a rate that is twice as large as people with incomes under $25,000. So those are also discrepancies from the ideal. The ideal is that not only do all citizens vote, that all votes are counted accurately, which is what our study is about, but also that no citizen has a greater influence than any other citizen in electing our representatives or influencing them after the election. That’s what campaign finance reform is all about, trying to achieve that third goal. So I actually see what we’re doing on election systems reform as part and parcel of a general effort on the part of our society to move forward in a positive direction, to get closer to the ideal of having a legitimate government, legitimizing the government by having a voting system that is closer to the ideal than it is now.

HEFFNER: Norton, in just the few minutes that we have remaining, I’ve got to go back and ask you about a couple of items. Number one, absentee ballots. What did you conclude, if anything, about absentee ballots?

GARFINKEL: We had a lot of fun in that area because it’s the worst part of our election system. It…These days, we’re close to 10% in absentee ballots, and counting, and more so. People like the idea of absentee ballots. So the fun that we had was to think about the technology to find a better way to do absentee balloting. And there’s some very marvelous technological advances that, over the next decade or so we think may give us a much better way to do absentee balloting. Imagine that you can pick up the telephone and call into the election system, authenticate your voice by a biometric authentication system that your voice is your voice and then go through a Q and A, a question and answer, where the question is “who do you want to vote for for president? Do you want to vote for this person? For that person or the other person?” And you answer “I want to vote for this person”. And it gets recorded automatically within the system with no intervention on the part of a person on the other end of the phone and therefore you’re in total control of the situation.

HEFFNER: You smile, but you don’t really like that, do you? It worries you!

GARFINKLE: Well, no, no, I like it a lot, actually. I love good technology solutions. There’s a lot of work that has to be done to get there. But I think it’s far preferable to the system that we have now where you have to ask for a ballot, you get a ballot, you fill it in. You don’t know whether it is going to be counted. We have a terrible absentee ballot…it’s much worse than punch cards. Absentee ballots are much worse than punch cards. We do need a better technology for it. Let’s solve the technology for non-absentee first, and then let’s work energetically to find this, this technological solution to…

HEFFNER: Now I thought that you would be uneasy about the potential for…let’s call it corruption, personal, on a large scale, whatever you want with absentee balloting.

GARFINKEL: Well, I think that with the future technology system you will reduce the potential for a lot of the corruption, because the one thing that the biometric voice identification will do is that it will make sure that you are the person who is voting.

HEFFNER: Oh, I understand that you are the person, but outside of the polling booth the pressures must be enormous.

GARFINKLE: Well, they are now.

HEFFNER: In absentee balloting.

GARFINKLE: In absentee balloting. I’m not saying we ought to go to more absentee balloting.

HEFFNER: Which we are doing.

GARFINKEL: Which we are doing. I’m saying that if we are going to absentee balloting, let’s have a better system.

HEFFNER: What about the electronic voting? What about the computer?

GARFINKLE: Oh, the internet doesn’t work for voting. Either for standard voting or for absentee voting, simply because the hackers can get in and you’re really running a great deal of danger, so if you were trying to do voting by computer on the web, the web just doesn’t work. That’s why the absentee solution is a telephone system outside the web. So I think that all the talk about the web as a solution just doesn’t work.

HEFFNER: The key question I suppose remains…we’ve touched on it, but let’s come back to it…What’s being done literally in terms of making resources available for any of these technological changes to take place?

GARFINKLE: Well, at the moment there’s a lot of talk…there are initiatives in a number of states. I think there is a bill in Congress to provide matching funds. I think it’s sponsored by Senator Schumer in New York and other people. And the question is whether the intensity of concern that came out of Florida will in fact carry its way through to having some of these initiatives adopted. The initiative in Florida is very strong because the governor wants to, to…to be able to say that what happened the last time is not something that he likes.

HEFFNER: I suspect that all Americans want to be able to say that. Thank you so much, and thanks to the Institute for doing this study, Mr. Garfinkle.

GARFINKLE: Thank you very much. I’m delighted.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The Bluestein Family Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The Garfinkle-Minard Foundation; The Center for Educational Outreach & Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University; The Commonwealth Fund; and from the corporate community, Mutual of America.