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Brian Livingston
Revive America's election process with technology, campaign finance reform

LAST WEEK I DESCRIBED ways computer technology (not necessarily Windows technology) could improve America's election process. This week I will elaborate on such improvements, and next week I'll print readers' comments.

In my last column, I said that the 1950s technology used to count U.S. elections must go and that the Electoral College should be replaced by a computerized popular vote tally using cheap and simple technology. Instant run-off voting (IRV) -- employed for decades in Australia, Ireland, and elsewhere -- should be used to ensure that the winner has a true majority of voter support. (Under IRV, voters' second and third choices are counted if their first choice cannot win.)

Perhaps I'm prescient, but well before the Nov. 7 election I had booked a trip to observe election systems in various states. I was in Vermont on Nov. 3-4, Maine on Nov. 5-7, and Washington, D.C., on Nov. 8-10.

I chose Vermont and Maine because a few years ago they adopted campaign finance reform measures that first took effect in this year's election.

Maine's system is the more extensive of the two. It permits statewide and legislative candidates to sign a "clean-money" contract saying they won't accept funds from others or spend personal money on their campaigns. The state then provides each participating candidate with an equal amount of campaign dollars in an attempt to establish a level playing field. The system frees candidates to talk with average voters instead of constantly holding fund-raisers with wealthy donors.

But the computer technology component of Maine's system is one of its most fascinating aspects.

The state does not attempt to prohibit any candidate or IE (independent expenditure) committee from raising private money to oppose clean-money candidates. (Such prohibitions would run afoul of a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Buckley v. Valeo.)

Instead, when a clean-money candidate is opposed by a candidate who raises private expenditures, the state immediately uses EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer) to wire the clean-money candidate "matching funds" that triple his or her original campaign dollars. The candidate is not authorized to spend all of this money immediately; he or she can only spend an amount equal to the amount the IE committee has raised. The candidate is notified of the new spending limit every 24 hours by e-mail. The use of EFT and e-mail to send the lump sum and authorize new spending levels eliminates time delays. Snail-mail transfers would cripple a fast-moving campaign.

In its first year of operation, when many candidates didn't even know whether the clean-money system would work, more than 33 percent of legislative candidates chose to sign up for it. Now that it's been shown to work, it's likely that more than 50 percent will sign up next time.

The EFT system is designed to discourage independent expenditures that distort the level playing field. Only half a dozen or so IEs were reported this year in Maine, so the new system does seem to be reducing outside cash.

You're probably noticing at this point that, technically speaking, Maine's system isn't particularly cutting-edge. As far back as 1980, I myself was a developer of EFT systems. But using the latest technology isn't a good idea where elections are concerned. Using stable, proven technology is far more important.

When we do upgrade a technology, though, we need to acknowledge that it's not enough for us simply to computerize a bad system. As computer professionals, we have a responsibility to redesign the system at the same time it's being computerized so it makes sense and has integrity.

Americans used to laugh at Soviet elections because you could tell in advance 95 percent of the time which candidate was going to win.

Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists, it turns out that U.S. elections are just as predictable. The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, Washington-based research group, reports preliminary results showing that 94 percent of the candidates who spent the most money for U.S. House seats won them. (For details, see

We should certainly move forward on the technology reforms I discussed last week, such as inexpensive, computerized voting terminals.

But unless Americans insist upon campaign finance reform at the same time that we programmers are modernizing the machinery, we'll merely make a bad system run faster.

For more information on the Maine system, check out and

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