Voters are much more likely to lose their vote when they cast their ballots by mail. In 2008, absentee voters in Florida were 54 percent more likely to overvote than voters who showed up at their polling place on Election Day. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology also found that the increased use of vote-by-mail in California — and the corresponding increase in the number of absentee overvotes — has all but counteracted the reduction in Election Day overvotes precipitated by recent improvements in voting-machine technology.
These fundamental changes in how people vote have made HAVA’s technological fix an even less potent defense against overvotes. So we must find other solutions to reduce the number of lost votes in 2012.
For starters, some states must fix their unnecessarily hard-to-read ballots. New York displays candidates for some contests across multiple rows of the ballot; this leads many voters, believing that each new row contains candidates in a different contest, to accidentally mark multiple candidates for the same contest. Fixing this ballot design problem is straightforward and would reduce the confusion that leads to overvoting in the first place.
We also need better data on the number of votes lost in polling places. Very few states keep public data on overvoting. Even fewer maintain precinct-level data. This information is needed to identify faulty voting machines and polling places that need better voter education and translation services. Legislators around the country should follow the Florida Legislature’s lead and require counties to report overvote data by precinct. Legislators should also mandate that state and local election administrators take all necessary steps to address election administration problems in high overvote areas.
The Help America Vote Act was an important opening salvo in the effort to prevent lost votes. But now is not the time to be complacent about that accomplishment. We must be cognizant of how recent voting changes might lead to lost votes, and we must take all feasible steps to ensure that every vote counts in 2012.
Sundeep Iyer is a fellow with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. Lawrence Norden is acting director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson appears at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church on M Street Northwest for a pre-rally before a march to the White House to protest what is seen as President Barack Obama's lack of action in addressing a variety of problems in black communities.
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