October 29, 2004

Examining the Voting Process

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With one of America’s most heated elections around the bend, Kroch Library sponsored a panel discussion, “Representation, Democracy, and Electoral Machinery: Four Years After the Florida Vote” yesterday afternoon with Prof. Stephen Hilgartner, science and technology studies, as moderator.

The event, a joint collaboration between the Department of Science and Technology Studies and the Cornell University Library, accompanied the recent installment of an exhibition titled “Get Out the Vote: Campaigning for the U.S. Presidency,” spotlighting campaign materials from 1796-1960 at Kroch Library. The panel discussion featured Prof. Walter Mebane, government, Prof. Michael Lynch, science and technology studies, and Prof. Sheila Jasanoff, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Hilgartner introduced the panel discussion as “timely for an event that will happen in five days. The changing perception of voting technology in America, he observed, is evidenced in our views today compared to the days “prior to the 2000 election, when people tended to view the electoral process as if it were a measurement of the will of the people.”

The discussion started with Mebane, whose topic, “Failing to Count All the Votes,” revolved around voting inaccuracy in a supposed highly regulated and precise process. A voter comprehension problem was a main reason for inaccuracy, Mebane pointed out, as illustrated in the butterfly ballot fiasco at Palm Beach, Fl. Because this “confusing creation” displayed its punch holes down the middle rather than on one side, 2000 or 1 percent of the votes in the county erroneously went to Buchanan instead of Gore.

A second problem Mebane addressed was undervoting, often caused by issues with punch card technology. Because many voters used a pen or pencil to punch through the holes in the machine rather than the designated device, many chads were not punched through the entire way and could not be counted.

Third was the prevalent phenomenon of accidental overvoting. Mebane pointed out that in Duval County, Fl., where voters selected different candidates for the same office because of misleading instructions on the ballot, 26,000 or 9 percent of all votes in the county were discarded, causing an voting error rate 80 percent greater than the best county in Florida.

He concluded, the 2000 “election was decided more by election procedures than anything else.”

Lynch centered on the theme of human error in voting and the limits of “mechanical objectivity,” the idea that a vote is sometimes “an intelligible vote to a human reader but not to a machine count.”

Lynch contrasted two opinions on mechanical objectivity: one supporting “unambiguous rules, infallible machines, and uniform standards” that “treat machines as blameless,” the other allowing for “flexible, judgmental compensation for non-standard actions.”

This difference of opinion raises Lynch’s question, “What exactly do you count as voter intent in the materiality of the ballot?”

On some ballots from the last election, where the fill ovals were not right next to the candidate’s name, voters drew in their own oval by the candidate; these ballots were not counted in the election although it was evident whom the voters preferred.

Lynch concluded that although Americans “put a great deal of trust in mechanical objectivity and rules, intelligible actions exceed the limits of systems. Ad-hoc judgments are necessary to retrieve the intelligibility of non-standard … actions.”

Jasnanoff discussed “Voters and Voter Intent in America”. First noting that “in many areas of public life, individual life is placed by statistical data,” Jasnanoff underscored the tension between the clinical gaze, which endorses the importance of the individual, and the epidemiological gaze, which sees the individual as a small contribution to an aggregate statistic.

Arguing that the voting process is one of the last remnants of the clinical view, Jasnanoff likened the voting booth to a confessional space, where in theory a person can “declare intent” and exercise “individual right.” At the same time, she noted CBS News’s coverage on the election results as something that took “individual acts of intent and report[ing] them in an uncluttered way” — in essence, an epidemiological gaze that reduced individual votes to a statistic. Jasnanoff also touched on the reliability of polling and the problem of “volitional exclusion,” the idea that many voters are not expressing their intent by not participating in the election process.

The goal of the archive and the panel discussion is to “provide students with resources to experience voting technology,” said Elaine Engst, university archivist in the library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Eli Brown, head of program and project management in the same division, added that voting technology becomes “a visual reality” during the exhibit and that “chads … are a novel experience in real life.”

Hilgartner explained that one of his impetuses for creating the exhibition was an “interest in understanding how technology systems operate and what happens when they fail.” v The exhibition, an eclectic showcase of mugs, walking sticks, sunglasses, soaps used as promotional material and of voter ballots and machinery, was made possible with a grant from the National Science Foundation and the joint efforts of Hilgartner and Jasnanoff.

Archived article by CATHY XIAOWEI TANG
Sun Staff Writer