There are many reasons to adopt such policies, but we shouldnít lose sight of their potential effect on the number of lost votes in future elections. When citizens donít vote at their polling place, they receive no feedback or opportunity to correct their ballots if the machines canít read their votes. And if states donít make an extra effort to discern voter intent when machines canít read votes, those votes will be lost.
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 ó and the corresponding increase in the number of absentee overvotes ó 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 HAVAís 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 Legislatureís 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 Centerís Democracy Program. Lawrence Norden is acting director of the Brennan Centerís Democracy Program.