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MIT Better World

Christine Thielman

On voting day, we headed to our local school or town hall and pulled a lever or filled in a circle for our preferred candidates. Perhaps we donned an “I voted!” sticker. Soon after polls closed, we got the election results, and that was that.

Since the upheaval following the presidential election of 2020, most individuals no longer take the electoral system for granted. According to Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science and a leading national expert on election administration, “It’s different from how it used to be, both technologically but also in how the process responds to societal demands and needs. We’ve moved from a system where we assumed that you voted where you lived, and were allowed to vote only if you were a long-term resident. If you were a short-term resident, too bad. If you were busy raising a family or worked during voting hours, too bad.”

As we’ve moved toward accommodating demands for greater convenience, there is more voting by mail and voting early in person, says Stewart, founding director of the MIT Election Data + Science Lab (MEDSL). There are also new laws in many states that make it easier to get on the voter rolls and harder to get removed from them. “All of that is great,” he points out, “but it multiplies the amount of administrative complexity in elections. And that puts pressure on administrators to run accurate elections.”

How hard can it be? Very!

When legislators and pundits discuss election problems, Stewart likes to say, they engage in what he calls “how hard can it be-ism,” assuming there are simple fixes. But ballots are complicated, and technology and automation are vital to ensure accurate tabulation. Stewart and his colleagues at MEDSL, which collects, analyzes, and shares core election data, see an increasing need for and use of data science in elections.

“Americans vote for more things than citizens in any other part of the world,” says Stewart. “We have 500,000 elected positions in the United States, while most countries only have a couple hundred. Every bit of election administration now depends on some sort of automation, and that’s what allows us to count votes quickly and accurately.”

Even getting the correct ballot to each voter can be challenging. “Because we have so many elected positions,” says Stewart, “everyone is in districts that overlap.” All voters in a state have the same US senators, for example, but have different congressional representatives, state legislators, and city councilors. Because determining which intersection of all of these districts a voter lives in is complicated, he continues, “there has been a rise of the use of geographic information systems (GIS). It’s been estimated that 10% of all voters get the wrong ballot each year, and GIS vendors emphasize their skill in reducing these errors.”

Challenges to results

Ten years ago, it was inconceivable to many Americans that the results of a national election could be doubted. But as a polarized electorate has fueled voter distrust, Stewart says, election officials are frequently called on to prove that vote counts are accurate. “That means increasing use of statistical methods to test the results and assure voters that they got things right.”

During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, officials worried that they would be short staffed on election day. On the contrary, Stewart recounts, “Americans came together to pull off the 2020 election. It was probably easier to recruit poll workers than it’s been in decades.”

It may be a different story in 2024, since highly publicized threats against poll workers in battleground states have renewed concern about finding election day workers. But Stewart worries more about the people running increasingly technological and complex elections, “chief elections officers and the people who work for them. These are not highly paid positions, and there’s a real challenge in recruiting and retaining people to be expert in these systems and to stay for a long time.” In fact, Stewart points out, “In 2024 we’re going to see a lot of people who are managing their very first presidential election, and that’s a concern.”

Voting by mail and drop box

Some Americans voted by mail for the first time during the pandemic, but Stewart points to three “legacy states” that have been voting exclusively by mail for several years: Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. “The system is already well established. All active registered voters get a ballot in the mail, and it’s hard to vote in person in those states.”

In states that are new to mail-in voting, such as California, he continues, “Almost all Democrats voted by mail there in 2020, and fewer Republicans did. The fact that mail-in voting has become a partisan issue is a shame on both sides. We’ve gotten into a situation where Republicans in a lot of these states who would benefit from voting by mail don’t do it, and where Democrats minimize the risks of voting by mail.”

While voting by mail works very well in many states, he goes on to explain, designated electoral drop boxes are even better than the postal service. “Drop boxes are designed specifically for ballots, picked up regularly, and subject to fewer delays since ballots aren’t mixed in with other kinds of mail.” Because of distrust around the election results, however, some states have passed laws restricting the number and location of drop boxes, which Stewart thinks is unfortunate.

The future of voting machines

Another wrinkle: the modern voting machine. After the 2020 election, Fox News and other outlets broadcast wild conspiracy theories that were swirling around machines made by Dominion Voting Systems. Although Dominion filed a defamation lawsuit against Fox and received a staggering $787.5 million settlement, the misinformation continues to have fallout. MEDSL researchers are observing, Stewart says, “a grassroots movement to ban any sort of scanners, any sort of computerized counting, and to go back to relying on hand counting. It’s growing within the Republican party, and causing all sorts of problems.”

In districts that need to buy new voting equipment, officials are pressured not to consider Dominion equipment. “This boxes out a good vendor,” says Stewart, “but also in the long run it’s going to be bad for the business of voting machines. It’s already a very small industry and if Dominion is knocked out, it could become a monopoly situation.”

Despite technological demands and a new level of partisanship, Stewart is confident that American democracy will survive the 2024 election. “I don’t know that it will be less chaotic than 2020,” he says, “but we’ll get through it.”