Why do Americans make voting so hard?

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In the comments, "Student: writes
I have never understood the deal with voter registration. It seems very odd to me.

The state is supposed to know who are allowed to vote. If the state can't even keep track of this you are bound to have cheating. So, why not just register everybody who are allowed to vote and tell them where they are supposed to vote. Works perfectly in Sweden. Unless you vote by mail you get the place where you are supposed to vote assigned to you (usually within a reasonable distance of where you live). Everybody votes on paper. The votes are counted by hand in each district several times and the results from 99% of the districts are in the same evening.

How does America manage to make voting such a hard problem?

I'm not going to defend the registration thing, but I get the impression a lot of non-Americans don't understand how different the American political system is and how it changes the dynamics of voting. In a typical foreign election, there may be one or two contests (my Swedish sources tell me it's often one). Americans vote on everything. My absentee ballot for the November general election (I'm working the polls so they recommended I vote absentee) has 24 separate contests (President, Senator, US Representative, State Senator, State Assembly, Superior Court Judge, County School Board, 12 state-wide propositions, 1 county proposition, 3 district propositions, and 1 local proposition). This isn't that unusual in California, and Joe Hall's thesis says that some counties can have up to 200 contests. So, the required level of effort in the us is between one and two orders of magnitude greater than in many other countries.

Experience with hand counting ballots in New Hampshire, which still does a fair amount of hand counting gives an estimate of about 6 seconds per contest/ballot pair in teams of 3 with the sort-and-stack method (reference from Joe Hall). If we assume 5 seconds for convenience, that gives 15 man-seconds per contest/ballot pair. If Palo Alto were to do a hand count of this election, then you would need about 6 man-minutes/voter and your team of 3 does about 30 ballots/hour. Looked at another way, if you want to get results in 3 hours on election night, you need 7 teams of 3 each for a precinct of about 1000 registered voters (this assumes about 2/3 turnout). For reference, in the 2004 General Election, Santa Clara had about 600,000 votes cast. In order to get results that night (which the current electronic systems do) you would have needed approximately 3,000 counters at a cost of about $1.39/ballot (estimate from Anthony Stevens of New Hampshire). As a reference point, California polling places can be staffed by around 5 people (and Stevens's numbers assume that the counters haven't spent the past 15 hours watching people vote), so you're probably looking at increasing the total number of people the County needs by a factor of 3-5.1

This isn't to say that voting in the US is somehow perfect, but for politico-structural reasons that have nothing to do with the technology employed, the scale of the election is quite different than in many other countries, so you can't really draw comparisons without adjusting for that.

Thanks to Joe Hall for helpful discussions about this post.

1.Hall reports that the Los Angeles County 1% manual recount can take weeks.


The state is supposed to know who are allowed to vote.

This gentlemen points out the main differences between Europeans and the US is this very quote. We have a strong distrust of our government. The very idea that the state may track us is distasteful to most americans which is why we fight is tooth and nail.

But he is right on one thing - voting, the concept, is easy. But in the US its govern by a very political and partisan process by design AND its left up to the states - not the federal government. This leaves open to 50+ possible standards of voting. Many states are clueful about how to implement this process (Minnesota, Nevada, etc) - others aren't (Ohio, Florida) - its the later states that get all the international press.

(but to get to the point of the article - you leave out one very important point - the US is big - very very big geographically and population wise - to compare the US to say Switzerland or Norway or any European nation is downright silly and naive)

I found this post very interesting indeed. First to give some background:

We have normally 3 different elections. Those are split up in City, Landsting (County) and National elections. In each election you can do choose a party and give preference to a candidates from that party. Add to this various census, and you end up with an average 4-5 votes. Far less than USA indeed.

I can't tell how well our system scales up to 20+ ballots (we would indeed need more people counting), but I think it would indeed scale well.

Does the size of the country really matter for the election system? Tabulating the results once they are announced from all the election points can't possibly be the limiting factor in the election system.

In the end it might be a matter of cost (which is kind of sad as fair elections are the most important thing a democratic state does) or political strife. Somehow I get a feeling the later explanation lies closer to the truth. There must be a lot of people with interests in keeping the current voting system in the USA.

The problems—and worse than mere problems—endemic to our system of voting constitute junk. They are a junky, low-quality slovenliness of thought and action closely analogous to the crummiest, least nutritious and worst-tasting, most insect-leg- and rodent-hair-laden plastic-packaged output of the beaten-up vending machine at your local middle school.

And yet our major media outlets, peopled by prominent individuals who would no more dream of buying jelly worms than they would eat Wonder Bread, have for years let pass the malnutrition of our democratic processes without reporting it—as though the systematic undermining of voting and of vote counting were somehow just the way things should be.

An article from the WashPost newly—and finally!—notes some of the pattern of voter registrations being wrongly thrown out, in a front-pager from this weekend, just a thought too late for it to have much beneficial effect before the 2008 elections. As many of us have known for months or years, new and ‘improved’ voter registration processes instituted after the flawed HAVA . . .


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