Mary Lou Matusik stacks up absentee ballots for counting at the Lake
County Government Center in Crown Point, Ind., on Election Day.
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.
The shuttle Endeavour stands on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center
in Florida, in preparation for its Nov. 14 launch to the international space station.
Both of this year's presidential candidates - Barack Obama as well as John McCain - have called on NASA to look into the idea of flying the space shuttle fleet past its scheduled 2010 retirement date.
Now the space agency is providing some sobering estimates of the costs and the risks that would be involved - leading one seasoned space observer to wonder whether the shuttle program should be throttled back rather than extended.
NBC News' Jay Barbree, who has spent 50 years as a space correspondent, was struck by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin's guest column in Florida Today this weekend, headlined "Time to Retire the Shuttles."
In the wake of the 2003 Columbia tragedy, investigators warned that the inherent risks of the shuttle design - including the lack of a reliable escape system and the vulnerability to flying debris - were so great that the fleet had to be retired "as soon as possible."
Citing that warning, Griffin said that the shuttles "should be retired after fulfilling our commitments to our partners from Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia by completing assembly of the international space station." For the five years or so between the fleet's retirement and the debut of the shuttle's successor, NASA would have to rely on Russian spaceships to send crews to the station and back. That situation may be "unseemly," but it's less risky and less expensive than the alternative, Griffin said.
How risky would it be to keep flying the shuttle? In an e-mail, Barbree said Griffin's answer gave him pause:
"Griffin warns, 'With knowledge gained since the loss of Columbia, we estimate there is a one in 80 chance of losing a crew during any single shuttle launch.'
"The NASA administrator goes on to write, 'If we were to conduct 10 additional launches prior to retiring the shuttle, there would be about a one in 8 chance another crew would be lost. These are sobering odds - one reason why the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended the shuttle be replaced as soon as possible.'
"If I read this correctly, NASA feels the odds are a one-in-8 chance the agency will lose a shuttle during the 10 flights to be flown before the shuttle is to be grounded Sept. 30, 2010. If this is true, why is NASA flying these missions, even if the USA has contractual obligations with international partners to complete the construction of the international space station?
"On the drawing boards are America's next-generation rockets and spaceships, named Ares and Orion. Experts say they will be 30 times safer - one loss in 2,100 flights.
"Should NASA ground the worn and dangerous space shuttles now, and move ahead with the much safer rockets Ares and the spaceship Orion?
"A sobering question."
Does the math make sense? The 1-in-8 statistic is roughly correct, assuming that each launch truly does pose a 1-in-80 risk of catastrophe. If you make that assumption, the precise figure would be an 11.8 percent risk of encountering at least one fatal mission in any set of 10. That's somewhere between 1-in-8 and 1-in-9. Obviously, the more flights you consider, the higher the risk of suffering a catastrophe at least once. For example, the risk rises to 72 percent if you launch 100 more flights.
Combining probabilities in that way doesn't change the risk for any individual flight. The next shuttle flight, scheduled for launch on Nov. 14, would carry a 1-in-80 risk, as would the flight after that, and the flight after that, and the flight after that. (It's the same with dice: You have a 1-in-36 chance of rolling snake-eyes for each individual throw, but a roughly 1-in-4 chance of rolling snake eyes at least once in 10 throws.)
The question NASA has to ask itself is whether each mission between now and the fleet's retirement is worth a 1-in-80 risk of losing the crew. Griffin is saying it's worth that risk for finishing the space station (and fixing the Hubble Space Telescope). But in his view, it's not worth that risk for transporting crew members back and forth - particularly if there's a Russian alternative.
NASA is required by law to lay out the risks and the costs associated with extending shuttle operations by as little as a year, or as much as six years. Griffin's guest column in Florida Today shed light on the risk question, and shuttle program manager John Shannon provided further information on the cost question today.
The Orlando Sentinel quotes Shannon as saying that the price tag would be at least $2 billion extra per year - a burden that he said would be "disastrous" unless Congress boosted NASA's budget by that amount. What's more, keeping the shuttle program running while working on the Orion-Ares system would jam up operations at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida as well as the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana, Shannon said.
Bottom line: Extending the shuttle program could be messier than the candidates think. There might be enough leeway to fly one more mission to deliver a $1.5 billion particle-physics experiment known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the space station. But if NASA's current management has its way, there'd still be four years or so when the space agency is dependent on other people's rockets.
If you were Obama or McCain, what would you do with this information? Would you want to keep the shuttles in business for a couple of years longer, go with NASA's retirement plan, or pull the plug early? Feel free to add your comments below.
I'll be helping out with msnbc.com's Election Day coverage, so the next Cosmic Log posting will be on Wednesday - and it will likely be related to the election. Don't forget to vote!
Kim Carney / msnbc.com / IEM
This chart shows rising levels for Barack Obama's stock (and falling levels for John
McCain's stock) on the Iowa Electronic Markets' winner-take-all market.
Even though GOP presidential candidate John McCain insists he's catching up to Democratic rival Barack Obama, the gap on the political prediction markets is widening on the final day of the campaign.
McCain's shares fell to about 10 cents on the Iowa Electronic Markets, and to even lower levels on other markets. That means buying his stock now would reap a tenfold payoff ... if he wins, that is.
Over the past 20 years, studies have shown that prediction markets do a better job than polls when it comes to anticipating the winners of presidential contests.
Such markets let "investors" put down play money or, in some cases, real money on the prospects for parties or individual candidates. For example, today you can buy Obama's stock at 90 cents on the IEM's winner-take-all market. If he wins, you get $1 per share. But if McCain pulls off an upset, you get nothing. That upset would make those 10-cent McCain shares worth $1 each - which provides a choice buying opportunity for the contrarian investor.
"McCain still has a 10 to 12 percent probability of winning - that is better than zero," said Tom Snee, a spokesman for the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business, which operates the IEM as a research project. "If you buy some McCain now, you could make some serious change."
Throughout the final weeks of the campaign, we've been tracking five winner-take-all prediction markets dealing with real money (Betfair, Intrade and the IEM) or play money (Inkling and NewsFutures). Here are today's quotes, as of 4 p.m. ET:
Snee said there appears to be a GOP selloff aimed at settling accounts on Election Eve: "People holding McCain are looking to clear," he said.
Comparing markets, models and polls
Another type of market at the IEM predicts what the eventual popular vote total will be, and those shares trade in a much narrower range. The current verdict is for a 53-47 split that favors the Democrats.
How does that stack up against the political polls? It's hard to judge, because even on Election Eve, a good number of voters are telling pollsters they're undecided. The breakdown in the final NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll is 51 percent for Obama to 43 percent for McCain, leaving 6 percent in the undecided-or-other category.
If we assume that all these figures correctly reflect the final result, the implication is that as much as two-thirds of the undecided vote will break McCain's way, still leaving Obama on top. But that's a big if.
The NBC/WSJ poll, conducted Nov. 1-2 among 1,011 likely voters, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. And there are plenty of intangible factors, ranging from the turnout levels for young voters to the potential for a race-driven "Bradley effect."
Another way to predict the popular vote is to use Yale economist Ray Fair's model, which is based purely on economic statistics. The final prediction, issued last week, comes up with a Democratic-leaning 52-48 split on the presidential vote, and a 56-44 percentage split in the House. (The current House split is 54-46, favoring the Democrats.)
Fair has set a plus-or-minus margin of 2.5 percent for his model, and there are additional intangible factors to consider here as well:
Even if Obama ends up winning the popular vote, there's still a chance that McCain will prevail in the state-by-state electoral vote. That's what happened in 2000: George W. Bush may have ultimately won the presidential election, but Al Gore piled up a bigger total of votes.
Eight years ago, Gore's investors won the big payoff from the IEM, while Bush's backers went away empty-handed. The same thing could conceivably happen this year: Obama's investors could win even if their man loses. Nate Silver, founder of the FiveThirtyEight.com election prediction Web site, said there's even a chance that McCain could win the popular vote while losing the electoral vote.
Neither the markets nor the polls are perfect predictors, as Hillary Clinton's surprise win in the New Hampshire Democratic primary illustrated 10 months ago. Clinton's investors cleaned up back then, and McCain's investors could pull off a similar coup this time around.
It all goes to show that there's no such thing as a sure thing, in the markets as well as in politics. Or do you disagree? Feel free to add your comments below.