Stewart lecture

MIT professor Charles Stewart's lecture at UGA on April 26 focused on a specific area of the electoral process — collecting and counting votes.(Photo/Megan Mittelhammer)

After the presidential election of 2000, Massachusetts Institute of Technology distinguished professor Charles Stewart III vowed to never advertise an open-door policy when inviting students to his apartment to watch election returns again.

“Luckily, at 2 a.m. one of the networks called the election, so we shooed everybody out and locked the door,” Stewart said. “Within a half an hour, of course, they rescinded the call. So I could have been serving hors d'oeuvres for the next month and a half.”

On April 26 in Baldwin Hall, Stewart spoke at the George S. Parthemos lecture about the progress of election performance since the 2000 presidential election.

Stewart’s lecture focused on a specific area of the electoral process — collecting and counting votes.

Many Americans are concerned about the current election system, and Stewart acknowledged that “there are good reasons for being skeptical.”

“All of this is controversial, all of this is consequential,” he said.

Learning from 2000

Stewart explained that elections are better off than we think because Americans began to pay closer attention to flaws in elections after the 2000 election, Stewart said.

After the election, Stewart was asked to serve as co-director for the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, which brought together professors of various backgrounds to study all elements of American elections, from improving voting technologies to evaluating voter experiences in federal elections.

The categories within collecting and counting votes include registering voters, solving issues of voter registration, assigning voters to districts, verifying voters, designing ballots, retrieving ballots, returning ballots and counting ballots.

Stewart said they estimated between four and six million votes were lost due mostly to human error.

The Help America Vote Act, which was passed in 2002 and contributed $3 billion over the next eight years toward solving problems with election administration, was “most visible in the reform efforts,” Stewart said.

One of the most successful efforts has been decreasing the variety of voting systems used across the country in which Americans cast their ballots, Stewart said.

In the 2018 midterms there were two systems used — direct recording electronics (used today in Georgia) and scans, with a few rural counties in the U.S. still using paper ballots.

This switch alone, Stewart said, ensured the counting of between one to two million votes.

“This is an area where we can contribute,” Stewart said, addressing the political scientists in the room. “Political scientists can distribute this nuanced understanding to the public and we should.”

New concerns

The subject of Russian hacking is another issue Stewart believes Americans should take into consideration when evaluating the progress of American elections.

Stewart cited examples such as the first volume of the Mueller report and the World Threat Assessment that emphasize the very real threat of Russian meddling in American elections.

Votes are vulnerable both through the networks that transfer voter information from one department to another as well as in small jurisdictions where security might not be as advanced. With the placement of newer electronic voting machines, states will be better able to sanction and surveille the equipment and hopefully prevent cyber attacks, Stewart said.

While Russia does pose a major threat, Stewart said Americans both in the media and public administration “chase the bright, shiny object” that is Russian election interference.

“What I hope we don't do is give up on making lines shorter, making balance, more readable, improving voting machines to make them more accurate,” Stewart said. “In order to deal with the threat of Russian hacking, you really have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Stewart hopes students and faculty learned that there are many methods that can be used to measure and record the administration of American elections. Through these processes, we can recognize challenges to the election system and work on ways to improve them in the future.

“If your elections aren't good, your democracy probably isn't going to be very good, either,” junior political science and journalism major Abby Palazzo said. “It kind of all starts with the elections.”

Senior political science major Daria Chryssochoos agreed with Stewart’s argument but was still concerned about what was left unsaid.

“I think it's encouraging in terms of administering elections. I don't know if it's encouraging in terms of encouraging democracy,” Chryssochoos said. “I'm convinced of his argument, but what's not contained in this argument still will keep me up at night.”

The George S. Parthemos lecture is sponsored by the School of Public and International Affairs and the department of political science. Parthemos served as professor, political science department head and Vice President for Instruction over his time at the University of Georgia. The Parthemos Lecture Fund brings one of the world’s leading political scientists to UGA each year to teach an undergraduate class and present at the lecture.

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