Voting Advances, and Retreats

Despite a smooth election, reforms should continue

Voting in and reporting on Tuesday's presidential election were remarkably more cool-headed and responsible than four years ago. But there's still room for progress in both areas.

Not only was voter participation way up from 2000 (at 112 million, and counting, 6.7 percent or more citizens cast ballots than in 2000), some voters showed their dedication by standing up to 9-1/2 hours in line (they shouldn't have to go through that again).

Tempers at polling places were mostly cool. There was an admirable commitment by election workers to get the vote count right. Irregularities were spotty, and often quickly resolved. It took patience by voters, poll workers, and watchers to create such a welcome contrast to the 2000 presidential election.

New machines work

Many new and experienced voters faced touch-screen machines for the first time. Their encounters produced far fewer frustrations than predicted, and certainly improved on the hanging chad debacle of 2000. Early voting, a more widespread practice this time, also helped alleviate pressure at polling stations on Election Day.

But just as Florida 2000 put a spotlight on problems with punch-card ballots, the brief electoral standoff in Ohio this week should help force states to clean up remaining election-related problems, especially with provisional ballots.

A potential showdown over these ballots - which were required in every state by the 2002 Help America Vote Act - was obviated in Ohio by Sen. Kerry's eventual concession. But provisional ballots could become a sleeper issue again because of mixed requirements for validating them.

In passing HAVA, Congress rightly let states decide how provisional ballots should be counted. But many weren't up to the task of setting strict rules for them. In Ohio, for instance, standards for verifying provisional ballots vary from precinct to precinct.

Without standard procedures for approving and counting provisional ballots, those ballots could prompt legal challenges that might result in the courts again having a strong hand in choosing the president. Then, more than a day or two will probably be needed to handle future close calls.

Exit polls not scientific

That this election was less problematic than the last is no reason to ease up on voting reform. Efforts to move eventually toward some sort of foolproof Internet voting (which would reduce the long wait at the polls), and to improve exit interviews of voters by private pollsters should continue. In fact, the two companies the media relied upon for exit polls missed the mark in a key way.

Early exit polls Tuesday conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International suggested John Kerry doing well - so well, in fact, that he could possibly score a broad win. Of course, that turned out to be incorrect.

Democrats were somehow oversampled in early exit polls. One report suggested too many women were polled. Possibly some individuals just weren't being truthful as they exited voting booths, as was discovered in 2000.

The media had access to exit poll information, but mostly agreed not to talk directly about the results while polls remained open. Yet their knowledge of them still stood to influence how the unfolding election was characterized. And throughout Tuesday, various websites and blogs posted exit poll results, creating a wild and unnecessary emotional roller coaster for the campaigns, the candidates, and the public.

To their credit, the major television networks mostly avoided jumping on that ride. They adopted practices intended to avoid the mistakes of 2000. Needed restraint, rather than a "beat the competition" mentality, was the order of the day/evening.

It's important for the public to understand that exit polls are not scientific. They are meant to help inform news coverage, not to be broadly disseminated to the public. At least one prominent pollster, Andy Kohut, makes this useful suggestion: Report exit polls the day after an election.

No number of new voting machines or refined exit polling, however, will ever ensure a completely smooth democratic process. A truly effective democracy relies on the good will and smarts of its citizens.

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