Readers propose how to fix US election system

I have put forward the idea that computer professionals have a responsibility to help upgrade the error-prone vote-counting procedures used in US elections.

I have put forward the idea that computer professionals have a responsibility to help upgrade the error-prone vote-counting procedures used in US elections.

Specifically, I think that inexpensive terminals could eliminate double voting and other problems. A paper trail would be generated to allow hand recounts, if needed. At the same time, I think it would be irresponsible to simply speed up a bad system. We should press for campaign finance reform and the end of the Electoral College. Modern equipment now makes a direct popular election possible. Voters' second or third choices would count in an IRV (instant run-off vote), ensuring that one candidate achieves a majority, as in Australia.

Several readers who responded to my thoughts appear to be more interested in fixing me than in fixing the US elections.

I received numerous messages from readers who criticised my Electoral College views.

CW Hayes sent a map of the presidential vote by county indicating that Gore won majorities in urbanised areas, whereas Bush took the vast rural areas of the US.

Bush's reach is broad when plotted this way. "Why not call for a land-mass vote?" asks Mark Dobie. "George Bush had the votes of 85% of the land mass; Al Gore had only 15%, getting most of his votes in big cities."

Fortunately, the US still counts its votes by the person, not by square metre.

The Electoral College gives the seven smallest states three times the electors they'd have if electors were distributed by population alone.

But that doesn't mean the Electoral College is good for small states. After the debates, neither major candidate visited any "safe states", where one party was far ahead. Instead they visited (and made campaign promises to) only "swing states", which tend to have the largest electorate.

At present, a candidate can win the Electoral College with 51% of the vote in only the 11 most populous states. Absent the Electoral College, candidates would have to visit all states with undecided voters.

Other readers were supportive of my ideas. Mentioning the great Down Under elicited comments like this: "As an (unbiased!) Aussie," writes Phillip Rinehart, "I have long been a fan of IRV, though I always knew it as 'preferential balloting'. " He added, however, "Your terminal system must somehow be able to handle absentee voting and possibly home voting."

That's certainly true, and because many US states are permitting widespread absentee voting, improvements in paper-based ballots were on other readers' minds too.

"Check out the balloting system that Oklahoma uses statewide," writes Andy Anderson. "It uses paper ballots that are read and tabulated optically/electronically. If a ballot is improperly marked it is rejected immediately when the voter inserts it into the reader. The voter can then return it for another ballot."

Others noted that terminals are already used at some polling places. In 1998, counties representing 8.9% of the US population used them. Six vendors have developed such polling systems, according to Election Data Services.

"In Kentucky, our polls are computer-generated stations," writes Cliff Carlton. "They were electronically set up so there was no way you could mess up the vote."

I haven't proposed online or internet voting because computer access isn't yet universal and security issues remain to be solved. Joseph Kahle agrees, adding that privacy would concern many voters. "If anyone believes that public disclosure of how they specifically voted on any and all issues would have no effect on their private lives, they are surely living in a dream world," Kahle writes.

Unrelated to this, Joe Kruger rejects fixes entirely: "The notion that computer nerds (and I'm one of 'em) can do a better job of running elections flies in the face of the hundreds of failed IT projects that happen each year." He adds, "I'm guessing this won't win the vote as the best reader comment."

Don't be so sure. Kruger will receive a free copy of Windows Me Secrets, as will readers Carlton, Rinehart, Anderson, Kahle, Hayes and Dobie.

Send tips to Brian Livingston. He regrets he cannot answer individual questions.

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