Fraud-busters: 3,140 polls better than one

There's no such thing as a national election in the United States. This may come as a surprise to people who believe that Americans will vote for a president on November 2 in a "national" election.

Instead, there will be over 3,100 simultaneous elections taking place that day. When we aggregate the votes, the nation as a whole will elect a president and vice president.

This fact is important because this diffusion of elections is the best protection we have against voter fraud through corruption, intimidation, or– the most recent worry– computer hacking.

According to the Congressional Research Service, federal elections are conducted locally by 3,140 counties and independent cities. (Only Delaware runs its elections at the state level.)

The most basic level of protection is that each jurisdiction– each county or city or town with responsibility for conducting elections– chooses and maintains its own voting equipment. In 1998, for instance, according to the Service, 410 counties used paper ballots; 480 used lever machines; 635 used punch cards; 1,217 used optical scan ballots; 257 used electronic machines; and 141 had mixed systems.

In all of these jurisdictions, election rules are made and administered locally, in accord with comprehensive state laws and a few federal laws designed to guarantee that elections are free, fair, honest, and transparent.

The levels of protection are so numerous that even the most vociferous attempt to change the results of an election against the will of those who cast votes has an infinitesimal chance of success.

A new federal law requires that by January 1, 2006, each state and locality must meet certain standards that effectively prohibit punch card technologies. Consequently, many jurisdictions have already purchased new equipment to replace the machines that made the terms "butterfly ballot" and "hanging chad" so infamous four years ago.

Most jurisdictions are moving toward electronic voting systems, using "direct recording electronic" devices, or DREs. Are DREs trustworthy? John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, who is highly critical of election security procedures, notes in his new book, Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy (Encounter Books), "in the twenty-plus years that these machines have been used, in many counties all across the country, there has never been a verified case of tampering."

Many companies build and sell these technologies: Advanced Voting Solutions, Diebold Election Systems, Election Systems & Software, Sequoia Voting Systems, Unilect Corporation, and Hart InterCivic (which makes the "eSlate" machines Charlottesville uses).

In Virginia alone, 22 different types of equipment will be used in this year's general election. Even the most determined election-stealer would have to know what kind of equipment is in use by dozens, if not hundreds, of jurisdictions, in order to alter their hardware or software in an attempt to change the results of an election.

Even if a determined fraudster were able to get that information and figure out a way to hack into the systems, he also would have to collude with local officials.

Here in Charlottesville, this hypothetical flim-flammer would need the cooperation of the Electoral Board (currently composed of two Democrats and one Republican), the General Registrar (who's non-partisan), the technicians who service the voting equipment, the Chief Election Official and Assistant Chief in all eight precincts, and other Election Officials (who represent both the Republican and Democratic parties).

Moreover, he would have to involve the technician from Hart InterCivic who helps the Registrar set up the machines before the election, and the company's consultant who helps in the vote count after the election– different individuals whose assignments vary from election to election and from client to client.

Finally, he must gain access to sealed voting machines kept in a locked room inside the locked Registrar's office inside a locked City Hall Annex building, which has 24-hour surveillance cameras.

This means that to steal an election in even a small city like Charlottesville (with about 22,000 registered voters), effective election fraud would depend on a conspiracy involving no fewer than 25 people– (or more than 100, when all precinct-level officials are included).

Multiply this by 3,139 other counties and cities across the United States, and you can see what a Sisyphean task massive voter fraud would be.

Is every American election fraud-free? Of course not. Scattered reports of fraud occur after every election. While this fact means vigilance is necessary, it does not undermine the substantial integrity of the electoral system across the nation. Reports of fraud are notable because they are so rare.

The integrity of elections in the United States is protected primarily by the most fundamental aspect of our republic: its federal character, defined by a dispersal of authority and choices made in a diffuse system of state and local governments.

We should remember this on Election Day when we vote, not in a national election, but in one of 3,140 elections for President of the United States.

The author is chairman of the Electoral Board for the City of Charlottesville and the author of Sowing the Seeds of Free Enterprise and The Politics of Sentiment.