Al Gore’s Revenge

Vice President Al Gore ended the drawn-out 2000 election by many accounts bitter and dejected (even after delivering what many consider one of the best concession speeches in modern times). It is a bitter twist of irony that the current mess in American elections is essentially the revenge wrought by his narrowly-failed White House bid.

It is ironic, but many of the problems encountered on Election Night 2020 are born out of the rush to replace older, proven mechanical technology with glitzy, modern electronics—an outgrowth of Gore’s month-long contesting of the way votes were counted in Florida. The ups and downs of that legal battle profoundly changed the way elections are held in the 50 United States and the District of Columbia.

Nearly two years after that drawn-out election, with its butterfly ballots and hanging chads, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA (Public Law 107–252) by overwhelming margins in both chambers (357 to 48 in the House, and 92 to 2 in the Senate). While the law addressed multiple aspects of how elections were held, the biggest change was outlined in Title I: HAVA provided funding to states in exchange for them replacing punch-chard and lever machines with electronic systems such as touch screens and optical scanning voting machines. Washington used a carrot-and-stick approach to have states abandon technology that it deemed archaic.

Now, let’s stipulate up-front that Gore’s arguments had some merit. The punch card system in use in Florida was, in fact, problematic. Hanging chads, and to a lesser extent, “pregnant” chads (dimpled, but not fully punched, ballot holes) could reasonably leave voter intent somewhat unclear.

However, the decision to decommission lever machines is another matter. According to an excellent 2012 article by Eliza Shapiro in The Daily Beast

The machine was developed in 1895 by Republic Steel of Ohio, says Ransom Shoup, a descendant of Samuel Shoup, the inventor of the lever voting machine, and the former president of Shoup Voting Solutions. “At one point,” says Shoup, “there were 8,000 machines in New York’s five boroughs. There were machines in 41 states.”

And the lever machines were, most importantly, mechanical. They relied on gears and sprockets to move, in essence, odometers on the back panel of the voting machines that corresponded to candidates’ names on the ballot. No amount of chicanery, short of reworking the entire guts of a machine, could cause the lever machines to generate false results. And, absent the ability of elections workers or other sinister political operatives to enter a machine and cast bogus votes (a near impossibility in a state like New York, which has long provided bipartisan supervision of all aspects of its voting process).

The lever machines did not do the math for you—elections workers (from both major parties) had to take the data off the “odometers” and hand-tabulate the numbers, and then telephone them in to their county’s Board of Elections. There was a slim possibility for mathematical errors, transposing numbers, or even, in those places with non-existent opposition party organizations, perhaps more sinister acts—but the machines were also exceedingly easily audited. And, with elections workers manually signing in voters (and comparing signatures to a published log) the number of votes cast needed to match the number of voters. It was not a fool-proof system, but it was pretty darn close.

Now enter the chaos of the 2020 election. If the Help America Vote Act was supposed to, um, help America vote, then it’s a bigger failure than the War on Poverty.

It’s also a costly boondoggle. As the Daily Beast article noted, the voting machines used in New York State dated to as long ago as 1895, and most were at least decades old. HAVA replaced voting machines with computers, reliant on constantly changing standards for things like uploading data and operating software. States will have constantly have two choices: update rapidly aging systems, or endure Election Week stories about the antiquated electronics they expect voters to trust. You are no doubt reading this article on an electronic device: a smartphone, a desktop PC, a laptop, an iPad. How many times have you upgraded the device you’re using? What iteration are you on? How much money have you spent on a piece of technology that rapidly depreciates?

Your county and state Board of Elections are now doing the same thing, ensuring that taxpayers will constantly be hit with bills to upgrade or replace their new election systems. In Philadelphia, which was undertaking a voting machine replacement just last year, for instance, “The ExpressVoteXL costs about $8,000 each, and by the time the city gets through buying, servicing and maintaining all 3,735 new machines, as well as purchasing ancillary equipment, the total bill, according to official estimates, may be between $50 million and $60 million.

Incidentally, one of the more laughable assertions about the reason to scrap the lever machines put forth was this, from Shapiro’s Daily Beast article: “But the lever fans say the machines were efficient and effective—and that their fatal flaw was the weight.” This assertion, from 2012, flies in the face of Philadelphia’s upgrade plans as of last year:

“As an example of how little is known about the purchase of the new voting machines, the city, according to Deeley, is going to need a ‘new climate-controlled, dust-free warehouse’ to store the new machines. That baffles Clark, who said he ‘doesn’t have a clue’ where the city’s going to find enough space to store more than 3,000 new voting machines that weigh 300 pounds each, triple the weight of the city’s current voting machines. Custodio counters that there are several suitable sites in the city.”

And that squares with the author of this article’s experience as well. I was the official spokesperson for a county government serving 219,000 people for 10 years. I was there when the county offloaded its beloved lever machines and took on new voting machines—and promptly had to contract for a new climate controlled warehouse around 15 miles from its actual Board of Elections. Not only was the new warehouse climate-controlled, it also needed electrical drops from the ceiling for every voting machine, so that they would have a constant supply of electricity and their onboard batteries wouldn’t run down—and each machine required excess space around it, to “breathe.” (Again, think of your own home PC, and then expand it to the size of your office copying machine and then multiply it by hundreds of units.)

Everyone reading these words is aware of the questions surrounding the veracity of the 2020 election count. I won’t attempt to litigate that here, but will note this passage in a Politico article:

The companies “uploaded something last night, which is not normal, and it caused a glitch,” said Marcia Ridley, elections supervisor at Spalding County Board of Election. That glitch prevented pollworkers from using the pollbooks to program smart cards that the voters insert into the voting machines.

Ridley said that a representative from the two companies called her after poll workers began having problems with the equipment Tuesday morning and said the problem was due to an upload to the machines by one of their technicians overnight.

“That is something that they don’t ever do. I’ve never seen them update anything the day before the election,” Ridley said. Ridley said she did not know what the upload contained.

Last-minute upgrades making voting machines go full Frankenstein’s monster are no way to run an election, and certainly no way to foster public trust in the legitimacy of our republic’s government.

Eric Clapton showed us back in the 1990s that some things are better Unplugged. Just like Layla, HAVA-mandated electronic voting machines have turned our whole world upside down.

1 thought on “Al Gore’s Revenge”

  1. I remain a fan of optical scanning machines. Since they use paper ballots, it’s always possible to do a hand count. They were used in some counties in Florida in 2000, and they were never an issue. The lever machines work by leaving strike marks on paper. Sometimes the strike marks fell outside of the target area, or fell on a line. Election officers tallied the votes by crawling on their hands and knees, counting the marks, and tried to figure out which side of the line questionable votes fell on. Votes were certainly lost, and some may have gone to the wrong candidate.

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