On Election Day 2000, tens of thousands of Floridians accidentally marked their ballots in ways that could not be read by the state’s voting machines. Their votes didn’t count. The identity of our next president hung in the balance for 36 days.
To prevent the Florida debacle from repeating, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002. The law required states to upgrade their voting machines. Voting machines must now warn voters and give them an opportunity to correct their ballot if they determined there was an “overvote,” the invalid selection of more than one candidate, on the ballot.
This technological fix was supposed to make these kinds of lost votes a thing of the past. Although there is no reliable nationwide data on the number of overvotes in recent elections, it is likely that the voting-machine changes mandated by HAVA have substantially reduced overvoting.
But the HAVA requirements haven’t been enough to prevent votes from being lost — sometimes in staggering numbers — in recent elections. There were 60,000 lost votes in New York’s 2010 general election. Several counties in Ohio saw more than one in every 200 votes for governor voided as overvotes in 2010. The problem has even reared its ugly head again in Florida. In just 13 Florida counties in 2008, 17,500 votes for president were discarded as overvotes; advocates blamed inadequate overvote protections on the voting systems in those counties.
We often see these kinds of lost votes in poor urban communities: In East St. Louis County, Ill., 1.37 percent of all votes for president didn’t count in 2008. But rural communities are also affected: In Chicot County, Ark., 1.36 percent of all votes cast for president were not counted in 2008.
Part of the problem in these locations has been that when voting machines give voters the opportunity to correct their invalid ballots, the message shown on the screen is extremely confusing. In Florida and New York, for instance, the message told voters only that they had “overvoted” without telling them what that meant or that their votes would not count if the ballot wasn’t corrected.
But even a clearer warning message will not entirely prevent lost votes. As long as machines accept overvoted ballots, citizens will continue to lose their votes. There is an obvious solution, of course: Voting machines can automatically reject overvoted ballots, forcing the voter to correct them. This is done in many states, including California, New Mexico, Hawaii and Wisconsin. But other states have balked at the idea, suggesting that the change could inconvenience voters and poll workers.
That hesitance reflects a move nationally away from the kind of overvote protections mandated for polling place voting machines by HAVA. The starkest example is the move to vote by mail. Twenty-seven states now have “no-fault” absentee voting, allowing voters to obtain an absentee ballot without an excuse. State elections in Oregon and Washington state are now entirely conducted by mail.