Letters — From the January 2013 issue
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Victoria Collier’s report on the precariousness of this country’s voting system [“How to Rig an Election,” November] voices legitimate concerns but misdirects its anxiety. Many election-integrity advocates have called for “evidence-based elections,” arguing that voting machines should have a software-independent, voter-verifiable paper audit trail, and contrary to the picture painted by Collier’s bleak account, this advocacy has borne fruit.
Back in 2004, direct-recording electronic machines, many of them paperless, were indeed poised to overtake optical scanners as the preferred voting system. Since then, however, several states have begun eliminating DREs; other states have implemented paper-trail requirements for all DREs in use; and still others have updated their equipment with optical scanners instead of DREs. Overall, thirty-three states now keep paper ballots or records for every vote cast, and most of these states also mandate postelection audits. The work is, to be sure, unfinished: tens of millions of people still vote on unverifiable systems, and audit methods ought to be made substantially more rigorous and efficient.
Collier’s dark tone may owe to the influence of election observers who are convinced that fraud is endemic and that nobody is listening to them. In fact, election-forensics experts have been listening; they just disagree. The specific arguments that Collier adduces for widespread fraud rely on conjecture and a selective reading of the evidence.
For the few failures we have identified, we should focus on implementing systems and procedures that help us recover. Last March, a routine postelection audit revealed that two local contests in Wellington, Florida, had been mistakenly decided, apparently due to a software error. A court-ordered recount carried out just eighteen days later corrected the outcomes. Such success stories should be built on, not ignored.
The United States has far to go to achieve the ideal of evidence-based elections—and pressures to adopt Internet voting pose a new threat. But just as we need evidence-based elections, so too do we need evidence-based critiques of our electoral process. Groundless suppositions should not distract us from the work at hand.
Victoria Collier responds:
After the passage of the Help America Vote Act, the election-reform movement at first limited itself to requesting a paper trail for DRE voting, but this strategy quickly proved not only insufficient but also dangerously misleading. A paper receipt that confirms the voter’s selection does nothing to verify the total ballot count and offers nothing more than a false sense of security. Optical scanners indeed allow for an auditable election, but the paper ballots are useless if they are not actually counted. Florida currently allows for audits under limited conditions, and only after the election has been certified. Relying on recounts is hardly prudent; we saw how well that worked for Al Gore.
As Ian Volner notes in his excellent survey of the architectural legacy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act [“The Invisible Stimulus,” Portfolio, November], public appreciation for projects funded by the 2009 stimulus is nowhere near the level still felt for New Deal projects. One reason recent construction has failed to produce widespread recognition of the stimulus’s value is the simple reality of modern governance. No longer does the federal government take on the entire cost of dams or nuclear power plants. Today, megaprojects are financed with a combination of federal and state tax revenue, bond sales, tolls, and private capital.
Our understanding of how the New Deal worked is also clouded by seventy-five years of mythology: the Hoover Dam, which many consider the centerpiece of FDR’s public-works program, was actually authorized by Congress in 1928, during Calvin Coolidge’s administration and before the stock-market crash. Future generations may not appreciate our stimulus projects as we do those of the New Deal, but their legacy will endure.
New York City
Room for Debate
Robert Andrew Powell’s recent Letter from Seattle [“In the Writers’ Room,” November] puzzled me. I, too, have spent many hours in the Writers’ Room at the Seattle Central Library, but I’ve never seen any incidents like those he describes—no brushing of teeth or cutting of hair or vomit on the elevator floor. And nothing like this has ever come up at the community meetings I’ve attended, where the main issues discussed tend to be the dearth of copies of popular books and the need for more comfortable chairs. Given the chaos Powell describes, you would think Seattle would be up in arms over the state of our libraries, but city voters recently passed a property-tax levy to increase their funding.
The Seattle Central Library indeed welcomes homeless people, just as it invites all the city’s residents, as well as visitors like Powell. Its patrons are diverse, but everyone seems to understand that we share the building and need to respect one another. When I go there, I like to take a circuitous route to the Writers’ Room. Sometimes I head to the top floor, where there’s often a group of boys playing cards. Their game is wordless but lively, full of smirks and pointing fingers. I watch for a few moments, amazed that kids hang out here; but in a rainy town like Seattle, the library is a haven—and we’re all lucky to have it.