The Need for Professional Election Officials

In the U.S., elections are run by an army of hundreds of thousands of volunteers. These are both Republicans and Democrats, and the idea is that the one group watches the other: security by competing interests. But at the top are state-elected or -appointed officials, and many election shenanigans in the past several years have been perpetrated by them.

In yet another New York Times op-ed, Loyola Law School professor Richard Hansen argues for professional, non-partisan election officials:

The United States should join the rest of the world’s advanced democracies and put nonpartisan professionals in charge. We need officials whose ultimate allegiance is to the fairness, integrity and professionalism of the election process, not to helping one party or the other gain political advantage. We don’t need disputes like the current one in Florida being resolved by party hacks.


To improve the chances that states will choose an independent and competent chief elections officer, states should enact laws making that officer a long-term gubernatorial appointee who takes office only upon confirmation by a 75 percent vote of the legislature—a supermajority requirement that would ensure that a candidate has true bipartisan support. Nonpartisanship in election administration is no dream. It is how Canada and Australia run their national elections.

To me, this is easier said than done. Where are these hundreds of thousands of disinterested election officials going to come from? And how do we ensure that they’re disinterested and fair, and not just partisans in disguise? I actually like security by competing interests.

But I do like his idea of a supermajority-confirmed chief elections officer for each state. And at least he’s starting the debate about better election procedures in the U.S.

Posted on November 13, 2006 at 2:57 PM58 Comments


Andre LePlume November 13, 2006 3:27 PM

Exactly what we don’t need are disinterested officials. They are easier to bribe.

What you want is what we have in many places: mutually distrusting observers who keep an eye on each other.

Mike November 13, 2006 4:02 PM

Typical. The New York Times is calling for more bureaucrats.
Socialists like entrenched “public servants” because they are outside of citizen (and often elected leader’s) control.

Andre LePlume is right, the current system is much less corrupt. Don’t forget that our system is, by far, the fairest and most robust representative government in the history of man.
Do we really want to emulate the also-rans?

The answer to voter fraud is citizen action.
The people are ultimately responsible for the government they inflict on their fellow citizens.

starwed November 13, 2006 4:10 PM

“Don’t forget that our system is, by far, the fairest and most robust representative government in the history of man.”

Such arrogance, to state this as indisputable fact…

Justice November 13, 2006 4:14 PM

You don’t need disinterested officials, you just need officials that believe in fairness more than they believe in any given outcome.

There are such people. I have no idea whether they would do a better job than what the current system does.

Bunny November 13, 2006 4:27 PM

I’m with starwed there… Mike, you might want to get off of your high horse, open your eyes and smell the roses. (Sorry for the metaphor overload, but seriously, wtf?)

Thomas November 13, 2006 4:31 PM

@Andre LePlume
“””Exactly what we don’t need are disinterested officials. They are easier to bribe.”””

Perhaps “unbiased” would have been a better term than “disinterested”.

A more accurate, but unwieldy phrasing, would be “uninterested in who wins as long as it’s the one the people voted for”

Why not have both?
Supermajority-elected unbiased officials backed up by party hacks. The people pay for the former and the parties send as many of the latter as they want.
Defence-in-depth 🙂

some nobody November 13, 2006 4:38 PM

the problem with gubernatorial appointed officials is that they are rarely unbiased, no matter what the issue. a 75% supermajority wouldn’t stop a party hack from being appointed, they would just have to be a well-liked party hack

Canuck November 13, 2006 4:50 PM

You can have both unbiased officials and security by competing interests. That is how the process works in Canada. Unbiased officials manage the elections, but partisan volunteers oversee every step of the process. The volunteers run the polling (voting) stations and count the votes. The job of the unbiased officials is to insure that everything is in place for the partisan volunteers. Dirty tricks do still happen but nothing on a scale that could bias an election.

Roxanne November 13, 2006 5:12 PM

This is another example of something that works pretty well when you have 25 million people, most of whom come from a similar background, as in Canada and Australia. Yes, they have some significant minority populations, but there is still a majority that’s homogenous, and they mostly get along. I think this would work fine in places such as Vermont and South Dakota, where those conditions prevail, and not so much in places like the city of Detroit or the state of Mississippi where there are significant minority populations to the point that there is no majority, and they don’t just not like each other, it’s a miracle that some sort of civil war doesn’t break out, virtually on a daily basis. If they thought that there was a problem with the election, there would be rioting, and both sides would lynch the Voting Administrator first before pointing the guns at each other.

In actual reality, the folks who sign up to be election officials are mostly there to make sure the election is fair, and certainly around here that’s what they pride themselves upon. I just sort of don’t trust the boys downtown, or in the state capital, not to fudge the numbers if you give them half a chance.

I would like to see instant on-line vote reporting from the precinct level. Also from what I saw this election, it’s completely possible. It would be hard to change any totals, if the totals were out to the press within seconds of the vote being tallied.

Rich Rostrom November 13, 2006 6:16 PM

The supermajority rule works only as long there is reasonable partisan balance. There are four US states (MA, HI, RI, AR) where one party now holds 75% or more of both houses of the legislature. In MD, ID, and WY one house is 75% or more controlled. In the days of Jim Crow, every Deep South state was at least 75% Democrat in both houses.

Moz November 13, 2006 6:49 PM

Actually Australia has huge migrant communities and a diverse population. Voter information is printed in at least 6 languages that I know of. We also have bureaucrats who are professional electorial officials. The way we get them is just the same as for any other professional bureaucrat – there’s an appointment process designed to select for competance in the field. Likewise, elections are supervised by anyone with an interest just like the US, and that works well. But do you honestly believe that some random person is more qualified to evaluate a vote counting system than, say, Ari or Bruce?

The notion of a professional bureaucracy works relatively well in many countries, and from what I can see it very rarely works worse than the US system. Even in the US there seem to be some jobs considered too important to appoint purely on popularity, and you’re expanding that area rather than contracting it (head of FEMA, anyone?)

I’ve volunteered at elections in two countries so far, and neither suffered from the problems you are having in the US. But both were run by professionals with nothing to lose whatever the outcome (what they were vulnerable to was an improperly run election, not one where the “wrong” candidate won).

The other thing is that your volunteer run elections savagely restrict the types of elections you can run. I think you’re seeing that now – even operating the voting machines is too hard for many volunteers, let alone troubleshooting them, and proper evaluation of machines and systems is totally impossible. For fscks sake, at least get a single office in each state + federal to evaluate, purchase and operate the machinery of democracy. Put safeguards in place (obviously), but pay the people a decent wage, give them a decent budget, and let them do the job. Elections are too important to let them be run by amateurs.

Once that’s happening you could start to use more complex electoral systems – trackable vote containers (with anonymous votes inside) are technically possible but not trivial to implement if you’re seeing the idea for the first time (I’m sure Bruce has covered this idea). Then there are proportional or preferential voting systems, for instance. Or even direct elections over larger areas – I think that one reason for the electoral college is that the US simply can’t deal with a single election with that many votes involved (there are probably parochial political issues as well).

I can’t imagine the system the US uses to implement elections coping with the Australian system at all. The combination of transferrable votes with proportional representation (upper house in most states and federally) would utterly confound you. I doubt your education system could even explain how to use it to most voters, let alone produce volunteers able to operate it.

Brad Andrews November 13, 2006 6:50 PM

Who says that appointed or employed people would be any better? That is the major flaw in the proposal. In fact, a bunch more people on the government payroll would tend to lobby for even more government payroll, and whichever candidate supported that. You can’t have “perfection” in the system, it is impossible. We should really calculate if a change would make things better before proposing it.


rputran November 13, 2006 6:53 PM

This variation of this model actually exists and is in operation in India. There is a Chief Election Commisioner (actually there are 3) who oversee the election process supported by both bureaucracy and volunteers. The election process also provides for representatives of the people standing for elections to have their own observers at every election booth. Overall this model has actually worked surprisingly well.

Moz November 13, 2006 7:22 PM

The reason professional electoral officials will be better is that there are no competance requirements for appointed or elected officials.

Most democratic countries do it this way, so the US really needs to justify not following the standard by having elections that work significantly better than other countries but apparently the reverse is true. Not invented here…

False Data November 13, 2006 8:31 PM

Another way to look at a 75% supermajority requirement is that it gives veto power to a 25% minority, which raises the important question of whether there is at least a 25% minority of incumbents who would have an interest in forcing the election process to be under-staffed (and therefore, presumably, under-policed.) Given how well attempts at campaign finance reform have done, I’m not especially excited about the idea of the incumbents in the legislature managing systems to control their own elections.

Instead, I’d suggest a couple structural changes to start things off.

First, bring gerrymandering under control to increase the number of contested seats. Hopefully, that change will increase the amount of noise in the system so it becomes less sensitive to shifts in small numbers of votes. I’d expect that the more votes someone needs to shift, the harder it will be to conceal.

Second, move to a form of rank-choice voting, such as instant runoff voting, to decrease opportunities for strategic voting and therefore strategically gaming the system.

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the U.S. public how much we’re willing to tolerate shenanigans and how much we’re prepared to hold accountable those who engage in them.

David Cake November 13, 2006 8:55 PM

Ah, the unintentional hilarity of US posters apparently quite seriously explaining how the (perfectly working and functional) system we have in Australia couldn’t work, and the (obviously broken) system in the US must be better, in stark denial of all evidence. Really, issues with either the mechanics or the integrity of the process are almost unknown here – and as previous posters have mentioned, out voting system is substantially more complicated in some ways.

The answer to your implied questions about the process, Bruce, is that the professional electoral officials have incentive to protect the integrity of the process, so they incorporate security by competing interests at every point – electoral officials design and manage the process, rather than make all decisions. For example all vote counting is performed by professionals but scrutinised by party volunteers from both sides who may appeal individual decisions. And as to where they get the people – the bulk of staff on election day are taken on for a few days at casual rates.

Dan November 13, 2006 9:02 PM

I’ve worked as a poll clerk in Canadian elections, and having seen the reality of the system, I’d say that a similar system could work in the United States, but there would also be some challenging differences.

Elections Canada itself is a fairly tiny organization between elections. I would estimate there are only something like 300-400 full-time, permanent employees. The vast majority of election employees are hired after the election “writ has been dropped,” – remember that in Canada’s Westminster system, an election can be called at any time. Consequently, as soon as the election has been called, the organization flies into a hiring binge.

In areas with any sort of a reasonable labour market, it’s obviously pretty hard to find dozens of people willing to staff the polls for every electoral district on 7 or 8 weeks notice. So you usually end up with students, retirees, and the politically interested. The major criteria for being hired are, to put it bluntly, literacy, the ability to follow simple directions, and a pulse. 🙂

The Deputy Returning Officers who oversee polling stations must be non-partisan (ie. unaffiliated with any candidate or political party throughout the election), but I believe poll clerks are free to support candidates – just not on election day, obviously.

As someone else noted, representatives from the political parties are present during all parts of the process. They watch poll clerks during voting and scrutineer during vote counting. From that perspective, the process is fairly transparent.

So as far as staffing goes, there isn’t an issue of needing to trust thousands and thousands of government emlpoyees to be impartial. There are about 400 impartial employees who set national standards and hire thousands of people to implement those standards. The thousands of people are asked to be impartial in their jobs, and there are representatives from the political parties supervising them to ensure they remain non-partisan.

Voting in Canada is done exclusively by paper. I understand that in Australia, counting votes in their preferential elections can take days, but Canada sticks to good ol’ first-past-the-post, so we can count fast enough to know who our new government is before we go to sleep election night.

The major advantage from having a national organization is that it can enforce national standards. (The single method of voting – paper – is one example of such a national standard.) There is one policy manual for setting up polling stations and supervising voting. There is one policy manual for determining whether someone who isn’t on the voter’s list should be allowed to vote. (As an aside, Canada has a national voter’s list, compiled from provincial driver’s licence registries, tax returns, etc., that aims to list every eligble voter.)

Decentralization is sometimes advantageous in that it prevents a corrupt central bureaucracy from affecting the outcome of the entire election. But in this case, I think centralization has its advantages – national standards mean that you aren’t leaving your election procedures to the inevitable variations that crop up between counties, and any possible problems with the single national standard are out in the open, ready to be debated and criticized at a national level.

(Would some of the voters’ list and absentee ballot injustices you hear about in some American counties be tolerated if the same proceedures were in place nationwide? I think it is sometimes just a case of the political majority doing things it knows it can get away with, because the local papers and local political climate will allow it to do so.)

And remember, you only have “centralization” in the sense that the overall system is overseen by a national body. 95% of the employees during the election are hired from the community where they will be working the election.

I’m not sure how American elections work – and I’m sure there’s a lot of variation between jurisdiction – but I’m assuming that basically the Democrats send half of the poll officials and the Republicans send the other half, and there’s the assumption that they will keep each other honest. I’m sure that works some (even most) of the time, but there’s a danger whenever you send people into a situation from a partisan perspective. By telling people they are poll clerks only by virtue of being Democrats, I think you’re changing the way they view the election. It creates an expectation they are there to represent their party’s interests, rather than run a professional election. Even if many of the poll clerks in Canadian elections are part-time political hacks, the culture is all about fairness, not representing your party’s interests. That’s what the party scruinteers are for.

Yes, Canada is a country of 33 million people – roughly the same population as California. So can this scale up to a country of 300 million with a vastly different political climate? I don’t know. As some of the previous posts have demonstrated, many Americans have an instinctive fear of government, especially the federal government.

In America, there is also a deeply entrenched culture of partisanship that pervades every part of government. (Don’t some places still elect judges?!) You could ask national administrators to come up with fair, neutral standards all you like, but it seems that in the States, everyone is ultimately either a Democrat or a Republican. In Canada, I don’t think as many people identify as strongly with a particular party.

Finally, elections in Canada are run slightly differently. In Canada, there are completely separate provincial elections overseen by provincial electoral agencies. In the US, the states have some responsiblity over how Senate and House of Representatives elections run, and state-level elections are usually run at the same time as national elections. This could make it harder to impose federal standards on the states.

I think Bruce is right that standards have to start in the individual states. But the first thing Americans have to do is start demanding more honesty and less cynicism from their elected representatives in charge of running elections, and start crying foul – no matter what your political pursuasion – when elections are poorly run and electoral policies are manipulated for political purposes.

jojo November 13, 2006 9:41 PM

For the anti-government zealots, let me explain it simply:

A civil servant, a bureaucratic hack, who has a nice big pension on the line is much less likely to cheat than a Katherine Harris looking to move up in the world. They want to sit on their lazy butts, and do nothing that could cause them to lose their job, by say cheating. They’ll look at implementing system that fulfill their due diligence requirements, and pay little attention for the current political setup because they’re looking at a cush job for twenty years or more.

Hopefully that is in language that y’all can understand.

crispm November 13, 2006 9:54 PM

Elections should be held on a Sunday, and serving as an election official should be a civic duty, like jury duty. But unlike jury duty, which draws from a random pool of citizens, the government would summon teachers, doctors, lawyers, postal workers, and other people whose jobs require/qualify them in literacy and the ability to follow instructions and interact with the public. Each party would be entitled to one overseer per election official.(Here “party” could be extended to also include organizations like the league of women voters, to provide an institutionalized system of getting overseers where the two major parties might come short.)

Each such group (election official, plus at least two overseers, say) would be legally responsible for receiving and processing the votes of some subset of a precinct’s voters, say 500-1000, in a given precinct. Certification of the group’s ballot boxes requires the signature (or thumbprint, as we are well past 1984 anyway 🙂 of the government-drafted election official and at least two overseers, for example. All this can be tweaked, and its practicality is proven by the fact that it is more or less how things are done in other countries. You get the competence of the people drafted by the government, and the competing interests of the party-designated overseers.
The actual means of expressing the will of the voters have been discussed here and elsewhere; the usual caveat about auditability applies. Using paper enables the election official+overseers to verify the voter’s intent unaided, but this is in principle orthogonal to the above.

The Sunday suggestion is not trivial (yes, I know it’s in the constitution, as are other anachronisms).
I find it mind-boggling that in the country that claims to be the standard of democracy, the emblematic event of voting is less celebrated than major sports events or shopping holidays. Election Day is the most important secular holiday in a democracy.

another_bruce November 13, 2006 10:31 PM

tomorrow: professional election officials.
the day after tomorrow: corrupt professional election officials.
the volunteer system promotes local control at the precinct level. i trust the local democratic personality (and the republican personality too) over a stranger sent from washington. creating an election control infrastructure will just make it easier to steal elections for the top of the infrastructure.
“you’re doing a helluva job brownie, you got me re-elected!”

False Data November 13, 2006 11:31 PM

I’m curious to know how the folks in other countries select the people at the top of the organization charged with keeping their elections honest, and how long those people hold tenure. In the U.S., for the last few decades we’ve had problems appointing neutral federal judges–one party or the other keeps blocking appointments in the legislature, usually in an attempt to politicize it–and that’s even without the fancy supermajority requirement the NYT article describes. If you’ve a system that works, maybe we can learn from it.

Dale November 13, 2006 11:39 PM

Look to the north and you will see a Federal Election system that works quite well.

A mix of both volunteer and Elections Canada officials.

ajoy November 14, 2006 12:11 AM

I would like to ask:
the “”systematic and random error” classification.Isnt that from the arstechnica article you linked before?

I realize that it might be common knowledge,in which case an acknowledgment is not necc.Otherwise acknowledgment would be good.

I realize that i did not add much to the article but just wanted to remind you….peace.

Hans November 14, 2006 2:46 AM

One of the problems I see is the fact that (mostly) there are only two parties running. In the Netherlands, we have more (OK, we have way more, which is also over the top).

With more parties running, the difference between the main contenders is likely to be more than just a “handful” of votes.

With more parties running, you can select your election-officials from one of the smaller parties, which are not likely to win anyway. Also the people in the smaller parties are often in because they care about their issues, and not because they want to build a career.

Our chairman of the election committee is someone who is widely respected for his “unbiasedness” and for his knowledge of the laws on this point. But his small Christian party has no hope at all of winning any major victories.

Ingo November 14, 2006 3:43 AM

“Elections should be held on a Sunday, and serving as an election official should be a civic duty, like jury duty.”

This is how they do it in Europe, btw. And ignoring some countries like Holland they still use paper and non-removeable pencils. Works very well and is very hard to fraude.

They do not use scanners. They use lists on paper. Counted by persons. They publicate the results of each voting region in the newspaper and in the internet so that any person can recount the votes and calculate the final result.

“Each party would be entitled to one overseer per election official.”

Much simpler: Anyone is entitled to oversee the election (apart from the secret marking of the vote by the voter) and the counting of the votes. This is again how it works in most countries in Europe.

The problem I see in this discussion in the US is that the risk always is seen to come from the outside, e.g. some hacker changing votes in some parts. But the real danger comes from the inside, from politicians who do not want to depend on votes anymore and who have all the power to change the laws so that fraude becomes possible without trace.

supersnail November 14, 2006 5:55 AM

” ..the fairest and most robust representative government in the history of man .. ”

I thnk the swiss have you beaten here. Both in terms of the longlevity of the democracy ( 800 years in the case of Schwietz, Uri and Oberwalden — minis a small interuption while Napoleon passed through), and, in terms of its current robustness.

Not that it matters much who is president in Switzerland , but, at least he was elected by a majority of voters.

averros November 14, 2006 6:51 AM

If there’s a problem with elections it’s not in counting votes. Accuracy of vote counting is just a smokescreen to hide the obvious fact that every election is a fraud.

First of all, no political election is a choice between unconstrained alternatives – and the selection of candidates is exactly the place where the “real” election is made by some backroom deals. So you get one scoundrel out of two, both of which you wouldn’t even consider if you had any real choice.

Second, the result of election is that a significant part of electorate (which voted for losing candidate(s)) is not represented at all – in which exactly sense the winning candidate can be claimed to “represent” the losers? Representative democracy is an oxymoron.

Finally, every election in a democracy is just an advance auction of stolen goods – trading distribution of future taxes for votes. Even in the worst times of absolutist monarchies the total tax burden rarely exceeded 5-8%. Think about that. And there were no total wars – all wars were just family quarrels, with ordinary people largely unmolested.

So could anyone explain me why everyone is so concerned with precision of counting votes which do not change anything anyway?

MathFox November 14, 2006 7:25 AM

averros, the flaws in counting the votes are the most apparent and can be most easily explained to ordinary people: “We lost 10.000 ballots”, “John Doe came out with a negative number of votes”, etc. I think that having non-partisan election officers responsible for fair elections will create a push for improvement of the election procedures.

You are right that there are more subtle issues in the US election system, which seems to be designed to give a third party little opportunity to gain a foothold. In the Netherlands there is a dozen parties that can obtain a seat in parliament, due to “proportional representation”; in the US it’s all or nothing: you’ld have to win a district, which means competing with the D&R publicity campaign.

Bruce Schneier November 14, 2006 9:25 AM

“Exactly what we don’t need are disinterested officials. They are easier to bribe.”

I don’t think that well-paid professionals are much of a bribery risk, but yes — I prefer the mutual distrustful parties approach too.

Bruce Schneier November 14, 2006 9:26 AM

“Typical. The New York Times is calling for more bureaucrats. Socialists like entrenched ‘public servants’ because they are outside of citizen (and often elected leader’s) control.”

For the record, this is not The New York Times calling for more bureaucrats; it’s an op ed.

Bruce Schneier November 14, 2006 9:34 AM

“I would like to ask: the ‘systematic and random error’ classification. Isnt that from the arstechnica article you linked before?”

I don’t know. I didn’t recall the paper when I wrote the paragraph. The disctinction is certainly much older than electronic voting discussions.

derf November 14, 2006 9:36 AM

Unfortunately, non-partisan or bi-partisan usually means one party rules while praising bi-partisanship and the other cries about partisanship, division, and being left out in the cold.

brainfart November 14, 2006 10:03 AM

What the US needs (apart from abolishing the winner takes it all voting system, and the resulting two party system) is a simple, proven, secure voting system. That already exists. It’s called the pen and the paper. You simply check the box next to the name you want to vote for. Other civilized nations made very good experiences with it in the past 100 years. Even relatively big nations with multi-million voters manage to hold elections and publish results a few hours after the voting is over.
The system is transparent. Everyone understands it. Everyone is able to watch the counting of the votes. Recounts are easily possible. Final results are in the next day, at the latest. Fraud is pretty much impossible, as long as the counting is done publicly and the whole election process is being supervised by Joe Sixpack.

The US is becoming the laughing stock of the world, with all the weird coincidences happening in connection with elections.

Like this one:

Lieberman’s Opposition in 2000 and 2006 Received the EXACT Amount of Votes

CNN 2006 Connecticut Election Results — 448,077 votes

FEC 2000 Connecticut Election Results — 448,077 votes

Thanks, Diebold!

jojo November 14, 2006 10:03 AM

Bruce, disinterested party administration is not exclusive with mutual distrustful party oversight. They are quite complementary.

Chuck November 14, 2006 10:15 AM

Canadian federal elections. Paper ballots counted by a volunteer official in the presence of a representative, known as a scrutineer, from each of the interested parties, who are free to consolidate the results from all polling stations on their own for comparison with the official results. Results nationwide by midnight or earlier in most cases. Admittedly not a useful approach where the ballot resembles a short novel, but it is so refreshingly free of problems. More complicated ballots could be handled by machine counting, with voter verification as follows: All ballots would have machine and voter readable serial numbers concealed from whoever gives out the ballots, and the voter could place the ballot in the box without divulging this number. The voter could also choose and mark a PIN number for their own use on the ballot. Machine counted ballots could be accessed on the internet using the serial number and PIN to confirm the vote was properly counted. If disputes were to be allowed, the voter would need to retain a copy of the ballot. The technology for machine counting of paper ballots is relatively cheap, old, repeatable and straightforward enough have much less room for messing about – especially if voters have a way of checking the results.

  • Chuck

gfujimori November 14, 2006 11:55 AM

Disinterested means unbiased, please don’t confuse this word with uninterested, which means uncaring.

C Gomez November 14, 2006 1:06 PM

I’m not sure professionals can be elected or chosen that would be “disinterested”. Really, I don’t see too many results that seem wonky. The polls predicted pretty much the exact swing that happened. The polls also predicted the last two presidential elections would be by a razor thin margin, and they were.

Of course, those filled with hate will merely say that they were stolen, but it seems unlikely. The AP even did a full recount in Florida and found the same result. If anything the strange recount in Broward County seemed politically motivated, with 1000 votes changing hands. Very strange, and what happens when you get elected election boards involved with manual recounting.

Can recounting like this work? Of course it can. You always need a paper backup, as Bruce has pointed out, and perhaps a good use of technology would be the printing of a human readable unambiguous ballot when someone finished with a machine. Still, filling ovals on paper with quality inkpens should suffice. That way 2 Democrats can’t argue with 1 Republican (Broward County) over whether a perforation came out of a punchcard.

The FEC of course pointed this out years before, but since when has a government been anything but reactive?

When 5 million people vote and the margin is .01% it’s going to be hard to know for sure, but if you are filled purely with hate, and not interested in real discourse, then believe what you want.

In fact, it seems more likely that Lieberman’s opposition received the exact same number of votes. I mean, if you were out to fix it, wouldn’t you at least be smart enough to make up a new number? The simplest explanation is usually the truth… unless you merely hate. Then it’s a global conspiracy. It’s laughable and sad.

kiwano November 14, 2006 1:11 PM

so in Canada, we have the partisan volunteers still doing all the scrutineering and the like, it’s just that the decision to continue using plain paper ballots, with a single column of candidates, to be manually counted; there’s a nonpartisan agency that keeps making that (good) decision (as well as things like standardizing signage for polling locations to make them easier to find, advertising that there will be an election, etc.)

Fraud Guy November 14, 2006 1:22 PM

@ averroes–Actually, tax rates under various monarchist societies nominally ran well over 50%, in addition to the burdens of serfdom (in medieval times) for the lower classes, and excluding tithes that were required to the local church. Granted, the robber barons were more obvious in their use of force to extract wealth from their people, but that did not make the burden less light.
Also, villagers subject to raids from medieval armies while they were “living off the land” could lose substantial portions of their food and livlihood. Medieval warfare has countless examples of villages, towns, and cities sacked by marauding armies, with many ordinary people “molested” during the hostilities. Even going back to more “pure” monarchical societes, such as the Roman Imperium, you see defeated populations moved into slavery or decimated to prove a point. (And if you think that it is bureaucracy alone that leads to this point, you must stop and consider the actions of the Athenian democracy, and their opponents, prior to the bureaucratic state.)
Basically, war has always been brutal, both to the combatants and to the civilians who are near the fighting.

The (imperfect) ideal of a lawful society is to protect its citizens from lawlessness. Whether that lawlessness comes from partisan politics, government, businesses, or outside forces, the value of any government is in its ability to equally apply the laws to anyone within its jurisdiction. In most cases, the US has ended up with a two party adversarial advocate system (in politics and law courts especially) to have competing views end up in some sort of middle ground.
The problem is, that when you have one of the competing parties make the playing field unlevel, the adversarial method can bring out biased outcomes. Without a viable third party present, the idea of having a “professional” election oversight is appealing, so long as it could be prevented from manipulating the outcome or is itself overseen (qui ipsos custodiet custodies). At a minimum, prevent the state chief election officer (e.g. Florida 2000, Ohio 2004) from being the chair of the election effort for one of the contenders. Have an outside auditor general whose unredacted reports are disseminated (and do not put them under the administration of the department they oversee). We don’t want beaurocrats or anyone else with a power structure they are (eventually) bound to want to preserve.

Anonymous November 14, 2006 1:26 PM

I’m not so sure about the robustness of the US system. I mean, apart from portions of the Judiciary, just about everyone wielding any sort of power is voted in under a relatively static ruleset. This will clearly concentrate power in the hands of the people who best figure out how to game this ruleset, and that power will be largely unchecked. Elections are a single point of failure, and that is not a robust system.

When one of the Houses of the Legislative branch of government is elected, the other appointed, and the Executive is hereditary, then there is no more single point of failure and you end up with a system that is actually robust.

The American Constitution certainly introduced some valuable new ideas to the practice of government, but sometimes comes across as a rigid master plan for running a government, instead of a collection of incrementally improved practices, which can adapt to new interests, new technologies, etc.

T November 14, 2006 5:54 PM


“I’m not sure how American elections work – and I’m sure there’s a lot of variation between jurisdiction – but I’m assuming that basically the Democrats send half of the poll officials and the Republicans send the other half, and there’s the assumption that they will keep each other honest.”

Essentially, yes. Not all positions in every jurisdiction are subject to this balancing act.

“In America, there is also a deeply entrenched culture of partisanship that pervades every part of government. (Don’t some places still elect judges?!)”

Judicial ballots in many jurisdictions are non-partisan. Judges elected by legislature or appointed are generally subject to various political litmus tests.

Phil November 14, 2006 6:17 PM

@Dan and @False_Data:

Following up with more details on the Australian system.

Yes, we use a proportional system for (most) houses of both the Commonwealth and State governments.

This means that if there are 3 parties (most elections we have 2 major parties, 2/3/4 minor parties, plus independants) and I really want to vote for an independant, BUT if she doesn’t win I want $BIG_PARTY_A to win rather than $BIG_PARTY_B, then I can do exactly that.

Neatly avoids the system problem America has where choosing the candidate you really want (Independant) means your preferred Democrat / Republican doesn’t get a vote at all.

Despite this system, lower house election results are normally decided same day, with perhaps one in five not being declared until the next day (Sunday). This delay doesn’t seem to impact private or government business unduly.

Moz November 14, 2006 8:18 PM

Phil, I think you mean that in Australia we use transferrable votes almost everywhere, as proportional voting is usually limited to upper houses.

A few links: Preferential voting, “single transferrable vote” or “instant runoff” as it’s more generally known:

Proportional voting:

Note that the upper houses in Australia use a combination of those, where the country is divided into electorates that have several representatives who are elected proprtionately using STV. There’s a complete report here: from the bureaucrazy dedicated to making it work.

averros November 15, 2006 3:30 AM

@Fraud Guy –

I don’t know where you obtained that 50% tax rate figure, but this just doesn’t match what I learned by reading the 18-th and 19-th century texts (History of France by Guizot, and such).

In fact, the average tax rate during the reign of King George III was 3%. That was enough to make Americans to rebel.

If you look at the current tax rates in the somewhat more that decorative monarchies today, they’re significantly lower than rates in democracies.

As for participation of civilians in the monarchist wars, of course, there was destruction and molestation (an army is, basically, a bunch of professional killers) – but the civilians were considered a prize, not an enemy, like they were since WWI (aka “making the world safe for democracy” in the immortal words of Woodrow Wilson) – and were not subjected to mass murder. You may be surprised to learn that even during the most acrimonous conflicts (like the 100-year war) civilians were free to travel between the warring countries.

crispm November 15, 2006 12:57 PM

On Election Day falling on a Tuesday (not Sunday): perhaps we could start with making that Tuesday a state holiday, state by state.

Fraud Guy November 15, 2006 2:58 PM

@ averroes

A quick look at the average kind payments required of serfs during the pre-Renaissance period shows that their effective tax rate, when labor, heriot, etc. are all added up, equals well over 50% of their output. I am not as familiar with later (more constitutional) monarchies and effective tax rates. I will endeavor to study that as well.

With regards to monarchist wars, including the 100 years war that you cite, civilians (especially the lower classes, who were not well able to travel locally, not to mention internationally) were very much subject to acts of violence and predation by the warring armies (e.g. the raids of the Black Prince). Granted, they did not have the modern means of mass destruction at a distance, but any army which mainly lived off the land (basically any pre-19th century) could easily surpass the effects of famine and plague for those who were not able to move out of the way (the lower classes, serfs, farmers, etc.). It may have been easier for the more privileged classes to avoid the effects of the war.

When we get to the post-Reformation period, you have numerous examples of monarchical armies (esp. of the Holy Roman Emperor) devastating the civilians of conquered territories when they were of conflicting faiths. Even prior to that, during the Reconquista, the Spanish monarchies eventually drove out the Jews and Moors who lived in their newly conquered territories.

Now, if you were in the orthodox Christian upper class during almost all of these periods, you would generally be able to either genteely ransom yourself (or your territory with an expedient switch of loyalty), or be able to travel away from or through the fighting as you noted above.

But now we are well off the main point of this blog. You seemed to be arguing that there is no reason to count votes because the US government will lumber forward with its monolithic theft from the people regardless of which party is in power. A monarchy would not change that, nor would it reduce the extractive needs of a government. An excellent example of that is the expansion of the army and bureaucracy of the Roman Empire after the Republic became the Principiate.
The best system would minimize bureaucracy, maximize participation, and maximize the accuracy of the results. I don’t fully trust the bipartisan system, for similar reasons to why you don’t think that changing parties changes the overall policy of the government. A “professional” election monitor would still be subject to some sort of political process, though it is possible that they would change their leanings over time (e.g. “conservative” judges appointed by Republicans turning “liberal” over time). Maybe the US should bring in election observers from some of the other democracies cited by other posters to oversee our elections, to minimize the risk of domestic priorities influencing the process and accuracy of voting?

Fraud Guy November 15, 2006 3:12 PM


I had forgotten; the main reason the taxes increased the rebelliousness of the colonies was not because of the amounts of the imposts and taxes on their commerce, but that these were being applied by the British Parliament (for the good of the Empire) instead of their local officials (whom they could influence). Their cases for tax evasion and smuggling were also removed from local courts to the British Admiralty courts in Halifax (early rendition?).

Phill Hallam-Baker November 15, 2006 9:30 PM

In the UK they use bank tellers to count the votes. Its a ready source of trusted labour, they get paid overtime for doing it, they are experienced at counting pieces of paper.

The banks accept this situation since elections are held on Thursdays and it is not a major inconvenience to be short staffed on a Friday morning.

In most countries schools are given the day off for polling day because the schools are used for the polling station. This creates a pool of schoolteachers who can be recruited to man the polls.

One of the main advantages of using schoolteachers is that they are experienced in people management.

Bank clerks and schoolteachers occupy a somewhat interesting status. They both work in low paid positions of exceptionally high trust.

The somewhat more difficult question is who to get to run the electronic gizmos you have to do the voting in the US. There is no comparable pool of cheap, readily available technical labor.

Paying overtime to a hundred or so bank clerks for a few hours on one night is a lot cheaper than the setup and maintenance on the electronic gadgets. A bank clerk can count a bundle of 100 votes much more quickly and acurately than a machine.

The only real argument for scanner systems rather than manual counting in the us is the silly number of elections taking place at the same time.

Kyle Lahnakoski November 15, 2006 11:32 PM

“And how do we ensure that they’re disinterested and fair, and not just partisans in disguise?”

Maybe it is the aura of the elections office that attract people that want to do the right thing. Maybe it is the low pay that deters the greedy.

“I actually like security by competing interests.”

That is a stunning statement, coming from you. You are in a country with, at best blatant, and at worst immoral, gerrymandering of districts: a side effect of having ONLY competing interests. What good is competition if one side has no power? Should we get rid of judges from the courtroom, and let the laywers battle it out on thier own. Maybe that is a good idea: Damn buracratic judges

In a matematical sense, and with perfect information, you can use gerrymandering to get a majority of seats (in a 2-party race) with just 1/4 the total votes. To be cautious, maybe you will aim to win 60% of the seats with a 70/30 split. Then you only need a whole 42% of the vote.

the other Greg November 16, 2006 4:35 AM

The only clear conclusions which can be drawn from the thread above are, that USians expect public officials to be corrupt (there is a significant undercurrent that they ought to be corrupt), and that everybody else expects, or least hopes, public officials to be just.

Until the US attitudes, especially that undercurrent, change, honest elections will be impossible.

piglet November 24, 2006 3:49 PM

“To me, this is easier said than done. Where are these hundreds of thousands of disinterested election officials going to come from?”

Bruce, why don’t you have a look at how this is done elsewhere before you ask questions that sound stupid and ignorant to any non-American? Richard Hansen is abolutely right: the way elections are run in the US is completely at odds with the “rest of the world’s advanced democracies”, and there is ample evidence that the US is doing it wrong and most everybody else is doing it better. The conclusion should be obvious.

piglet November 24, 2006 3:53 PM

“This is another example of something that works pretty well when you have 25 million people, most of whom come from a similar background, as in Canada and Australia. Yes, they have some significant minority populations, but there is still a majority that’s homogenous, and they mostly get along.”

Another fine example of US-based ignorance. Why do you guys always have to assume that if the US gets something wrong and somebody else gets it right, this must be because somehow, everything is intrinsically harder in the US than elsewhere. No, it’s not. It’s just a reluctance to accept that not everything is perfect at home, and to admit that sometimes it may be a good idea to learn from others, that has become so characteristic for many Americans’ attitude towards their country.

solivagus November 26, 2006 8:42 PM

I suspect the “checks and balances” so touted by some are designed to keep the laws from changing too abruptly. The founders must have known that stability is good for the economy and foreign investment. That they are so easily bypassed during times of crisis (due to public sentiment, or disguised as a mandate from the masses) is sad.

The whole electoral college issue seems to have no purpose other than to weed out third parties (summing and voting as a bloc effectively disenfranchises minority positions). The primaries are not particularly transparent to the casual observer, and seems to give us “the evil of two lessers”. I was stunned to see one lie to avoid embarassment (I never said that, mock surprise about owning a lumber company) and a guy who voted for invading a sovereign nation and then was unable to call it a mistake, though clearly his party thought so.

Frankly, I suspect most US citizens are fully aware of their impotence and that not voting is merely an example of rational ignorance:

Pete November 30, 2006 6:39 AM

@Roxanne: “when you have 25 million people, most of whom come from a similar background, as in Canada and Australia. Yes, they have some significant minority populations, but there is still a majority that’s homogenous”

I initially cringed about the statement, but there is some truth to this. About 40% of the 8 million people in Australia’s two major cities in Australia have a non-English speaking background, so we have a very multi-cultural feel. However outside of these cities the population has a higher proportion of Anglo-Celtic backgrounds, so the overall NESB proportion is probably around 15 – 20%.

People such as Moz have have already explained the Australian voting system pretty well. Along with many UK or European residents we tend to look on at US elections in amazement: the combination of direct political party management and county-level control has always been amazingly chaotic to watch from afar, and of course the electronic voting machines combine to make this almost surreal.

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