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Technology, practices thwarted Mass. voters in 2000

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About 120,000 votes were lost in Massachusetts statewide elections in 2000 due to election practices and technologies that could be reformed, according to a Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project report written by Professor of Political Science Charles Stewart and funded by The Boston Foundation.

The estimate of lost votes is based on Census Bureau research, which reported that almost 10 percent of 1.3 million registered Massachusetts voters who did not cast ballots that year cited "registration problems" at the precinct as their reason. The MIT report, "Voting in Massachusetts," states that these "lost" votes could be recovered by adopting a range of sweeping and incremental reforms.

"In our view, there are two paths that Massachusetts could take to reduce the number of Election Day registration problems that face voters. The first is radical--Massachusetts could adopt Election Day Registration (EDR). The second is incremental--Massachusetts could adopt a series of 'best practices' that have already proved effective" in other states, Stewart writes.

Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin questioned whether EDR was needed in Massachusetts. "There is no administrative impediment to people registering to vote," Galvin told the Associated Press when the MIT report became public. "We have a very high percentage of people registered to vote, so the problem isn't registering; the problem is getting people who are registered to vote.''

Stewart said his research indicated that EDR could increase voter turnout by 3 to 6 percent (80,000 to 160,000 votes in the 2000 election). The 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial election was decided by 106,000 votes. He noted that the half dozen states that have EDR find it simplifies procedures on Election Day. "To dismiss EDR out of hand without considering the experience of other states may cause us to forgo some important benefits," he said.

Stewart is one of the authors of the 2001 Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project report "Voting: What Is, What Could Be," an analysis of voting practices and technologies in Florida that threatened the 2000 presidential election. The 2003 MIT report on Massachusetts applies the same research methods to voting in this state.

The new Massachusetts report focuses on registration reform because the failures of voting machines no longer present as great a problem in the Bay State as was experienced in states like Florida in 2000. The report notes that Massachusetts banned Votomatic punch cards after 1996, which led to a "recovery" of 20,000 votes in 2000 that would have been lost had this change not been implemented. Still, the existence of mechanical lever machines in cities like Boston has been a concern; the current transition to optical scanning technologies by these localities will lead to even greater reliability on Election Day.

"The Florida debacle in 2000 focused attention on the failure of antiquated voting technologies in guarding the sanctity of the franchise. Just as important in protecting the quality of our voting rights, however, is maintaining an accurate voter registration system and staffing polling places so that voting occurs efficiently and within all provisions of the law. Massachusetts could greatly streamline its registration system and increase voter turnout by adopting Election Day Registration at the same time as it replaces its most dated voting machines," the new report states.

Facilitating the move to reform is the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which will supply much-needed funding to assist states, including Massachusetts, that are upgrading voting equipment. HAVA also has requirements that will spur Massachusetts to adopt certain best practices in election reform, such as a comprehensive "provisional ballot" to handle cases where a voter's registration is in question on Election Day.



- Adopt Election Day Registration (EDR) to reduce Election Day registration confusion and encourage greater turnout

- Adopt standard "provisional ballot" practices

- Require proper identification of all voters

- Adopt administrative remedies to facilitate the use of driver's license records to keep voter registration current

- Voter registration information should be broadly and directly available to precinct workers on Election Day

- Adopt aggressive voter education measures steering prospective voters to the right polling places on Election Day

- Adopt new anti-fraud legislation to guard the integrity of EDR


- Decertify mechanical-lever machines and DataVote punch cards

- Remove some idiosyncratic barriers to the certification of voting machines in Massachusetts

- Allow voters to be notified if they have over-voted on an optically scanned ballot

- Encourage localities to lease, not buy, new voting equipment

- Establish a statewide plan for the improvement of voting technologies

Polling place practices

- Abolish the requirement that election officials be registered to vote in the precinct where they staff the polls

- Begin experimenting with methods of in-person early voting

- Use municipal clerical employees as polling place workers on Election Day

- Cities and towns should be allowed to experiment with students as polling place workers

- Issue voter registration cards to all voters every two years

- Ensure accessibility to polling places for disabled voters

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 27, 2003.

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