USA 2012: Another election mess


The mess that is US election administration was demonstrated most clearly at the 2000 presidential election, when the result hinged on an effective tie in Florida. Various courts intervened, rules varied depending on which official was issuing them, and ballot paper designs were proven to be deeply flawed.

Since then, issues have kept arising. In 2004, voters in Ohio were stuck in long lines in strongly Democratic areas which prevented many voters from voting.

While some states are better than others and small efforts have been made to improve election processes have been introduced since 2000, the standard of election administration across the United States remains woefully low.

In last week’s election, voters in Florida remained in lines to cast an early vote until 1am on election day, and voters who had planned to vote on election day remained in line until 1am the following day – after the presidential election had been called. In Arizona, hundreds of thousands of ballots remain uncounted a week after the election – meaning that Arizona’s Senate race remains undecided.

There are three main causes of these problems, which seriously damage the United States’ position as a credible modern democracy.The first of these is due to the partisan control of election administration. In most parts of the United States, most jobs related to the administration are run by partisan officials. In most states the Secretary of State, who is ultimately responsible for the running of elections, is an elected official on a party ticket.

I’ve already blogged about the damaging effect of gerrymandering of electoral boundaries by state legislatures every ten years. Partisan election officials go far beyond that.

Democrats have generally benefited from early voting, with many Democrats casting ballots prior to election day. Early voting was extended in Florida in 2008 to deal with long lines, while in Ohio early voting was expanded massively as a solution to the long lines of 2004.

In 2012, the Ohio Secretary of State, Jon Husted, attempted to cut off early voting for the final three days of the campaign. This followed the decision to break a tie against longer hours for early voting in all Democratic counties, where Democrats had voted in favour and Republicans against. In Republican counties, the local election boards had voted unanimously in favour of longer hours.

Republican legislatures and governors also engaged in systematic efforts to suppress vote by communities more likely to vote Democratic. Voter ID laws were pushed despite almost no evidence of in-person impersonation voter fraud. These laws have been proven to reduce turnout amongst communities who include many people without a valid photo ID, including black communities, young people and the elderly.

The second major problem is due to absurd levels of decentralisation. Almost all parts of Australian federal elections are run by the Australian Electoral Commission. While there are local offices across the countries and each electorate has its own Returning Officer, they all report to the AEC centrally, which implements laws passed by the federal Parliament. No role for local councils and state governments.

Likewise, all state elections are run by state electoral offices, who also make most decisions in regard to council elections.

In contrast, while the US Congress has the power to legislate for federal elections, electoral law and administration is largely done on a state level, with much of the process decentralised further to thousands of local counties across the country.

This magnifies the problem of partisan election administration. On a local level, election standards can be manipulated further.

However even if there was no partisan control of elections, decentralisation still causes massive problems. US ballot papers can be notoriously badly designed, which can cause huge problems. A New York Times video delves into the world of poor ballot paper designs and the problems they cause, and bring in a designer to look at ways to improve ease of use and make things easier for voters.

Decentralisation also subjects election administration to neoliberal cost-cutting. Local administrations have widely varying capacities to pay for the costs of elections – and this can lead to measures to cut costs by making it harder to vote. Reducing the number of hours of voting, the number of staff working in polling places, or the number of voting machines or polling places opened.

This has a real effect on voters – poorer counties with larger populations are unable to pay for the election resources needed to ensure every voter can vote without a significant wait. Cost-cutting also forces local administrators to base their resourcing decisions on lower levels of turnout (such as those seen in midterm election years). When turnout is higher in presidential election years, a lot of counties haven’t provided enough resources to cope with demand.

The third problem that makes US election administration difficult is due to the complexity of the ballot. US state and local elections are held at the same time as federal elections in November each year.

In addition, most US jurisdictions have more positions up for eleciton, and a lot more referendums, than in Australia. There are referendums on state, county and municipal level. Offices such as Attorney-General, Secretary of State and other offices are directly elected, rather than being appointed by the state’s elected leader. In Florida, voters across the state vote for the Commissioner of Agriculture and Insurance!

This makes ballot papers long and complex, and makes it much more complicated to count them.

This is the main reason why, even if they wanted to, it would be impossible to return to a system where all ballots are filled out by pencil and paper and counted by hand. It would take forever.

This complexity partly explains why lines can be so long (although plenty of states deal with this just by having more staff/machines/booths). It can take ten minutes to fill out a ballot, regardless of the method.

The biggest delays that would be caused by using paper and pencils would be the time it would take to count every ballot. It may not take long to count the presidential votes, but there are then dozens of other elections to count.

Due to this complexity, you have to automate some part of the process. Most Australians wouldn’t know that, in many places, voters still vote using a pencil and paper, but the counting process is automated. These ballots would be familiar for anyone who took multiple choice tests at a school in recent decades – you vote for your candidate by filling in an oval next to their name. This produces a ballot which is readable by human eyes, but also by a scanning machine. Thus a machine can do a preliminary count of all ballots, with the option to revert to a hand count for any close races.

The obvious solution to most of these problems appears to me to be federalising the conduct of federal elections with an independent, well-funded body who designs all ballots, employs all election staff and manages all nominations for elections for President, House and Senate. Election law export Rick Hasen (who runs the excellent Election Law Blog) has been campaigning for a change in the US to an AEC-style system since last week’s election failures.

It will probably be too much to expect from the US Congress, but there may be some small moves in the right direction, with some members of Congress publicly calling for federal legislation setting uniform days and hours for early voting across the country.

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  1. Polling places being under resourced to deal with higher turnouts is a symptom of voluntary voting. I worked this out when thinking about reports of polling stations in the UK running out of ballot papers in 2010.

    If voters have to turn out then there is not excuse for there not to be the resources there for them all to vote.

    Having state and federal elections on different days would help.

    There are a few constitutional issues with federal run voting system in the USA.

  2. Tom, the first article of the US Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power to legislate for federal elections, if it so chooses.

  3. The Congress has the power to regulate Congressional elections. Except that it cannot regulate the place of choosing Senators and so the states could use that as a weapon in stopping federal running of Senate elections.

    Although it has been the near universal practice since the 1820s there is no legislative compulsion to hold elections for the electors of the President (South Carolina appointed them legislatively until it succeeded in 1861 and the 2 cases since have). Had Gore not lost in the Supreme Court in 2000 Florida was considering legislative appointment.

    The Congress has not power over presidential elections except on civil rights grounds with the Voting Rights Act.

    States do not even all elect all their electors on a statewide basis. Maine and Nebraska elect 2 each statewide and their other by Congressional district.

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