Reforms Needed To Correct Massachusetts' ‘Antiquated Election Practices’

August 5, 2003

Boston – August 5, 2003 - A nationally recognized group of voting experts examined Massachusetts’ current voting practices and has proposed a series of sweeping recommendations to bring the Commonwealth into compliance with current ‘best practices.’  After evaluating the reliability of existing voting technologies and administrative practices throughout the state, the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project has issued a series of 24 recommendations for reform, including election day registration to encourage greater turnout.  The report was funded by the Boston Foundation.

The report comes out at a time when voting technology and practices are under active review at the local and state levels.  Boston’s Election Department recently announced plans to purchase 265 new optical scanning machines to replace the lever machines that have been used in Boston for more than 50 years.  A group called the New Democracy Coalition is asking the city to slow down the debut of the optical-scanning machines, which are scheduled for use in the September 23 preliminary election.  In other developments, legislation has been proposed to require voters statewide to provide identification such as a driver’s license, birth certificate, fishing or hunting license, or student identification card, in an attempt to thwart possible voter fraud. Opponents to this proposal say that the already long election lines will become even lengthier if this suggestion is approved.

More than 120,000 votes were lost in Massachusetts’ statewide elections in 2000 due to antiquated election practices and technologies, according to the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project report, Voting in Massachusetts.  In 2000, almost 10 percent of 1.3 million registered Massachusetts voters who did not cast ballots cited “registration problems” at the precinct as their reason.  These are “lost” votes that could be recovered by adopting a range of sweeping and incremental reforms, the report states.  The report was written by Charles Stewart III, Professor of Political Science at MIT.

The report also points out that, “Just as important in protecting the quality of our voting rights is maintaining an accurate voter registration system and staffing polling places so that voting occurs efficiently and within all provisions of the law.  Massachusetts could greatly streamline its registration system and increase voter turnout by adopting Election Day Registration (EDR), at the same time as it replaces its most dated voting machines.”

According to the report, EDR is “the most sweeping administrative reform we recommend to improve the quality of voting in Massachusetts.”  The six states that have already adopted EDR, including Maine and New Hampshire, have seen a 3 to 6 percentage point increase in voter participation.

“In our view, there are two paths that Massachusetts could take to reduce the number of Election Day registration problems that face voters.  The first is radical — Massachusetts could adopt Election Day Registration.  The second is incremental — Massachusetts could adopt a series of ‘best practices’ that have already proved effective in other states,” Stewart writes.  To facilitate and implement voting reforms, the report advises, the Secretary of State should act quickly to appoint a permanent director of the State Elections Division.

Stewart is one of the authors of the highly regarded 2001 Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project report, “Voting: What Is, What Could Be,” an analysis of voting practices and technologies in Florida that threatened the 2000 presidential election.   The 2003 MIT report on Massachusetts applies the same research methods to voting in this state.

Fueling the move to reform is the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed in October 2002, which will supply much-needed funding to assist states, including Massachusetts, upgrade their voting equipment.  The HAVA also has requirements that will spur Massachusetts to adopt certain “best practices” in election reform, such as a comprehensive “provisional ballot” to handle cases where a voter’s registration is in question on Election Day.

“Massachusetts acquitted itself well in the 2000 election due to a combination of good fortune and skill,” said Paul Grogan, President of the Boston Foundation. “Luck, because the failures of punch card voting machines had already been demonstrated in a 1996 primary, leading to their being banned in the state; skill, because Massachusetts has a long tradition of careful election administration.  But now we need to meet new performance standards established under the Help America Vote Act.  I strongly urge our policy makers to consider the recommendations in this report to ensure the continual improvement of the quality of our democracy in the Commonwealth.”

Since the research for this report was completed, election reform has progressed in Massachusetts and nationwide.  In the Commonwealth, a steering committee to produce a Massachusetts state plan under HAVA has been appointed, chaired by Secretary of State William Galvin.  That committee began meeting this spring, under a deadline to produce a state plan in September 2003.

The Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP) came into being even as the ballots from the 2000 presidential election were being counted and the Florida recount was being contested in court.  The presidents of Caltech and MIT, David Baltimore and Charles Vest, convened a team of mechanical engineers, computer scientists, human factor designers, and social scientists from their respective campuses to respond to the national need for strong academic guidance at the intersection of technology and democracy.  Since then, the VTP has sponsored a series of conferences, reports, and consultations aimed at bringing the beset in objective, scientific analysis to the problem of applying the best technology to the improvement of voting in the United States.  Specific tasks have included evaluating the reliability of existing voting technologies and administrative practices, proposing objective and reliable quantitative guidelines for assessing voting technology reliability, and proposing specific principles for the design of new voting technologies.

The new MIT report proposes reforms in three areas:

Voter Registration:  Proposals for Reform

  • adopt Election Day Registration (EDR), to reduce Election Day registration confusion and to encourage even greater turnout;
  • adopt standard “provisional ballot” practices;
  • require proper identification of all voters;
  • adopt administrative remedies to facilitate the use of driver license records to keep voter registration current;
  • Voter registration information should be broadly, and directly, available to precinct workers on Election Day;
  • adopt aggressive voter education measures steering prospective voters to the right polling places on Election Day; and
  • adopt new anti-fraud legislation to guard the integrity of Election Day Registration.

Voting Technologies:  Proposals for Reform

  • decertify mechanical lever machines and DataVote punch cards;
  • certify electronic voting machines that otherwise meet Massachusetts voting machine standards;
  • allow voters to be notified if they have over-voted an optically-scanned ballot;
  • encourage localities to lease, not buy, new voting equipment; and
  • establish a statewide plan for the improvement of voting technologies.

Polling Place Practices:  Proposals for Reform

  • abolish the requirement that election officials be registered to vote in the precinct where they staff the polls;
  • begin experimenting with methods of in-person early voting;
  • use municipal clerical employees as polling place workers on Election Day; cities and towns should be
  • allowed to experiment with students as polling place workers;
  • issue voter registration cards to all voters every two years; and
  • ensure accessibility to polling places for disabled voters.

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The Boston Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations, has an endowment of more than $500 million and made grants of   $53.7 million to nonprofit organizations last year. The Boston Foundation is made up of 750 separate charitable funds, which have been established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. The Boston Foundation also serves as a civic leader, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to build community. For more information about the Boston Foundation and its grantmaking, visit