THE SHAPE OF ELECTIONS TO COME
Registering to vote online ... coping with masses of mail-in ballots ... voting during an "Election Week" rather than a single Election Day: These are all features that came into play during this year's historic balloting, and they point to the next step in the evolution of the electoral process.
On the day after Election Day, experts on voting technology were quick to explain what went right and what went wrong this time around - and whether it's possible to fix our clunky voting system.
The good news is that the meltdown many observers expected didn't happen, even though it looks as if this year's voter participation will break records. The total votes cast are projected to top 133 million, and depending on how many additional absentee and provisional ballots are counted in the days ahead, turnout could exceed the 63.8 percent figure recorded in 1960.
"Overall, the election ran smoothly in many places, with huge voter turnout," Wendy Weiser, director of voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center for Justice, said in a polling postmortem. "An unprecedented number of Americans voted, many for the first time, and that is great news. But while a lot of people voted, a lot of people also had problems at the polls."
Those problems could have generated controversies to rival those of the 2004 election, or even the 2000 debacle - if the presidential election had been closer. This year, Barack Obama's electoral-vote margin was comfortable enough that the glitches didn't make a difference. But make no mistake: There were glitches.
In fact, Charles Stewart III, who heads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's political science department and is a leader of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, has seen some evidence this year that "we've been backsliding a bit" in terms of the accuracy of election returns.
Long lines at polling places were the most obvious problems - and that's a function of the high turnout as well as longer and longer ballots. Some election officials anticipated that it would take just three minutes to fill out an optical-scan ballot, but Caltech researcher Michael Alvarez said his study of voting patterns in Albuquerque, N.M., yielded an average figure of 10 or 15 minutes per voter. (In Ohio, one election official clocked a voter at 21 minutes and 26 seconds. "I'm a careful reader," the voter told him.)
This year's biggest legal controversies focused not on ballot glitches but on voter registration, highlighted by allegations of widespread voter fraud.
"These concerns wax and wane as a function of how close the election is, and how concerned the left is that the right is going to win," said Stewart, who had an essay about the election system's stumbles published last week in the Los Angeles Times.
If left-leaning Democrats think that right-leaning Republicans are going to win, they put the focus on voter suppression and call for measures to make voting easier, Stewart said. (Example: motor-voter registration.) If Republicans think that Democrats are going to win, they put the focus on voter fraud and call for measures to make voting harder. (Example: Florida's "no match, no vote" restrictions.)
Stewart said this was the year for the Republicans to complain. "They're almost guaranteed to cause more problems in 2010 and 2012," he said.
So what can be done to streamline the voting process while preserving the integrity of the voting process? We're already seeing some efforts to move in that direction, and there may be more changes on the way:
MORE EARLY VOTING:
About a third of all voters cast their ballots before Election Day, thanks to absentee and early-voting schemes. The experts agreed that was one of the big factors behind the absence of Election Day meltdowns. "More places will adopt early voting because it seems to take the pressure off," said Rick Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in election law.
As time goes on, people will think of the voting process as taking place over an extended election period rather than a single Election Day. The flip side of that paradigm shift is that all the results may not be known on Election Night, as anyone following the Senate races in Minnesota and Alaska has already found out.
MORE MAIL-IN VOTING:
In states where voting by mail is becoming the norm, such as Oregon and Washington, the very idea of going to a polling place is becoming a fading memory. Alvarez said juggling multiple methods - vote-by-mail as well as in-person early voting and day-of-election voting - puts added strain on election officials. That could increase the pressure to go to an exclusively vote-by-mail system.
MORE OPTICAL-SCAN VOTING:
The prevalence of electronic voting systems grew between 2000 and 2006, but this year e-voting was actually on the decline. Historically, optical-scan paper ballots register fewer errors. MIT computer science professor Ron Rivest also noted that it's much easier to scale up an opti-scan system to deal with heavier turnout or voting-machine failures.
Rivest is working on a system called "Scantegrity" to make opti-scan ballots even more reliable and verifiable. Another, lower-tech way to reduce opti-scan errors is to give voters clear instructions on how to mark their ballot, Alvarez said.
Cutting-edge voting technologies have been put far on the back burner for now. But in the longer run, "we're certainly going to see a lot of push for Internet voting and cellphone voting," Rivest said.
CLEARER POLICIES FOR PROVISIONAL BALLOTS:
The federal Help America Vote Act, also known as HAVA, required election officials to make provisional ballots available to voters who run into polling-place problems - for example, not having proper ID. If you cast a provisional ballot, your vote isn't counted on Election Night - instead, it's held back until election officials determine whether or not you're actually eligible to vote.
That escape valve helped smooth out rough spots in Tuesday's voting process, but the federal legislation doesn't provide clear rules for counting (or not counting) the ballots. As a result, some states have stricter standards than others.
Hasen said Congress' priorities for election reform should include setting uniform guidelines for counting provisional ballots and helping states standardize the voter registration databases mandated by the HAVA legislation.
Hasen would like to see the federal government take the voter registration process out of the hands of the states. "The next president should propose legislation to have the Census Bureau, when it conducts the 2010 census, also register all eligible voters who wish to be registered for future federal elections," he said in a news release from the Institute for Public Accuracy. Election officials would be allowed to change registration information based on postal change-of-address forms.
"This change would eliminate most voter registration fraud," Hasen said.
Two states - Arizona and Washington state - already offer voter registration services online. In fact, my daughter used Washington's online system this year to update her own registration.
"California is soon going to be moving in that direction as well," Alvarez said. "I think it's going to be important to watch those processes really closely as pilot projects for what other states might do in the near term."
CHANGES YOU CAN BELIEVE IN?
What are the prospects for actually changing the system? Hasen admits that a radical electoral overhaul might not be in the cards, but he sees a fresh opportunity for evolutionary change.
"President Obama, who taught election law, likely has an interest in electoral reform," Hasen said.
Will Republicans go along with the idea? If more standardized registration systems can address the voter-fraud issue as well as the ease-of-voting issue, Congress and the White House just might come up with changes that everyone can believe in.
"It's going to be very interesting to see what happens in the next six to nine months," Alvarez said.
To track research into voting systems and election law, check out the Election Updates blog, the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, Hasen's Election Law Blog, Ohio State University's Election Law @ Moritz Web site and ElectionLine.org at the Pew Center on the States. Click through our "Voting Tech" interactive to learn more about how different ballot methods work. And be sure to include msnbc.com's Decision '08 Dashboard among your favorites.