Vol. 5, Issue 1, March 6, 2007
Early Voting System Gets a Bumpy Test Run in Florida
An experimental 'early voter' program in Florida designed to increase participation and accuracy is already causing controversy just weeks after getting started.
"We are on the very edge of democracy here," said Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning. "When you're that close to the edge, you cut yourself from time to time. We're confident that we are headed in the right direction for Florida, and are blazing a trail that the rest of America will follow someday as well."
Florida's election system suffered a catastrophic logistical breakdown in 2000, when a wide variety of malfunctioning voter machines combined with a dysfunctional state organization to produce a protracted, chaotic, and highly controversial end to the presidential election. Seeking to avoid a repeat of the fiasco, the state has explored several reform programs, including the early voter system being tested in Sarasota County.
The early voter system allows registered voters to record votes for future elections at any time. The votes are then stored in special databases managed by the Diebold Corporation until the elections in question. Consequently, residents of Sarasota County are already eligible to begin voting for candidates in the 2008 presidential election.
"There's no question but that Florida needed to consider electoral reform," said Miami State University professor Glen Ferguson. "They're still trying to figure out what happened in the 2000 13th Congressional District election. But while it is true that early voting may be seen as a logical extension of absentee voting, I cannot say that the system they have implemented is a positive development."
Among concerns is the fact that the candidates are not finalized for the next election. Consequently, voters today have 46 Democratic candidates to choose from, and a simple box marked "Republican guy" for the other party.
"Before the primaries, it's a roll of the dice," said Ferguson. "But the main problem is profiling. In an effort to compensate for the lack of candidate names, they let you pick by political party, general position, or even race. So you can lock in a general vote for 'white guy endorsed by the NRA' or something similar through 2050. It sort of takes the steam out of future campaigns, you know?"
Another concern is the fact that the system has no way of determining if a voter is still alive by the time of the election. In theory, a voter could 'pre-vote' for elections that may take place years after his or her death.
"Well, it certainly won't be the first time dead people have voted in a Florida election," said Ferguson. "However, in this case I'm not sure the added efficiency is a bonus. I think you ought to make volunteers walk the cemeteries writing down names if they want the votes. This just makes it too easy."
The early voter system will remain in Sarasota County through the next Presidential Election, after which the Secretary of State will evaluate the program.
"I think this will work out very well for Florida," said Browning. "We've already recorded more than 29 million votes in Sarasota County for the 2008 election. Is that democracy or what?"