Some short observations from someone familiar with New York’s, ah, “issues” with reliable voting.
When New York implements its new paper ballot/optical scanner voting system this coming election — I say “when” and not “if” because I’m optimistic to the point of foolishness — we’ll be ahead of England in at least a few material ways.
England uses a basic paper ballot system. No scanners. Just paper ballots, and hand-counting. Like on Battlestar Galactica. Still, as of late last night, they’d managed to run into two major issues.
First, several precincts were reported to have run out of paper ballots. This is a problem that could recur in New York, but we’ve solved it — kind of. As the law stands, every election district must stock a number of paper ballots equivalent to 110% of the district’s registered voters. Additionally, every voter is entitled to a maximum of three paper ballots. If the voter manages to spoil three successive ballots, which I did see happen in upstate New York last cycle, but only once, then that’s it. Their right to vote was discharged, but ineffectively.
Spoilage occurs most commonly because, for whatever reason, the voter marks their ballot, but the machine fails to read it, necessitating a new ballot free of stray marks. Reports vary on how regularly that problem occurs, but whatever the rate, it’s not a problem in the case of hand counting. How British precincts managed to run out of paper in a 55% turnout election, then, is unclear, unless they just weren’t prepared.
One problem remains: stocking an effective number of ballots is monstrously expensive. Paper ballots cost between $.10 to $.70 each, depending on whether the county can afford an in-house print shop. In some cases, that works out to a lot of money. But when the alternative is so starkly presented — a contentious election where not every interested voter can cast a ballot — the cost issue starts to diminish.
Second, many British precincts turned away voters who were in line at 10 PM, or, close of polls. No American jurisdiction that I’m aware of follows that rule; to the contrary, if you’re in line at close, you cast a ballot. Still worse, one precinct was reported to have unilaterally kept its doors open until 10:30, creating a litigatable irregularity, and violating British law, which requires voting to cease by the time exit polls are released, to avoid an election tainted by what “should” happen.
There are a couple of ways to read events like this. Put simply, though, it’s just this: democracy is hard.