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U.S. Voting System Has Improved Since 2000, but Problems Remain, Report Says

Technological upgrades in voting machines have significantly improved the integrity of the nation’s electoral process since the confusion that marred the 2000 presidential election, but widespread problems persist in voter-registration systems and in the growing number of absentee ballots, according to a report released last week by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project.

“The effort over the past dozen years to improve voting machines has paid off,” said Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an author of the report. “Voters who go to the polls should be much more assured that their votes will count and be recorded as they intended.”

For instance, the gap between the number of ballots cast in an election and the number of votes actually counted has been cut in half since 2000, the report says. In that year, approximately 2 percent of the ballots cast nationwide for president went uncounted, a problem that was correlated with the use of older voting machines. In 2006 and 2008, the rate was down to 1 percent of ballots cast.

But while those upgrades have largely eliminated the likelihood of another hanging-chad election, a host of other problems remain, the report says.

For example, nearly every state now has a centralized electronic voter-registration database, but those lists are often inaccurate and don’t properly account for changes such as deaths or out-of-state moves. Many states have voter-registration rolls that are larger than the actual population of eligible voters in the state, Mr. Stewart said.

Another issue of concern is the increased interest in voting by absentee ballot, the report says, noting that from 2000 to 2008 the number of people voting by mail at early-election centers doubled. In addition, 36 states now allow some type of early voting. The problem, especially with absentee voting by mail, is that it is more prone to voter fraud and coercion, and those ballots tend to go uncounted at a much higher rate, the report says.

The report issues several recommendations, including building a better scientific infrastructure for improving elections. Noting that “election administration is prone to being captured by individuals with a political interest,” the report calls for a science-based approach to producing policy for elections.

One of the most fruitful areas for further research and policy making is in how to conduct effective audits of elections, according to Mr. Stewart. Another aspect of voting that demands more research is “what actually happens in polling places,” he said, proposing several questions for future study: What causes long lines, and do they actually deter people from voting? Are longer lines more prevalent in minority communities? How strictly do election workers follow state and federal laws?

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