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A New Year's Voting Resolution?

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DAN LOH/AP

Out with the old: Will antiquated voting machines be a thing of the past?

All the bags of chad on eBay have been sold off. The last Washington lawyer has left Florida, apparently setting off a smoky fire on his way out. On the news channels and in the papers, the faces of the Supreme Court justices have given way to those of the incoming Bush administration. The election is over.

This year's 35-day affair didn't so much elect a president as pick one out of a hat. A cleanly split Florida populace faced up to a systemic margin of error that exceeded its margin of preference. That resulted in a statistical tie, finally resolved by the armies of political henchmen — pols, pundits, judges and lawyers — who traditionally are required to stand down for this one day of the year. And everybody walked away with a bad taste in their mouth.

The voters themselves may find that it washes away rather quickly, with a little cynicism and lots of egg nog, but the elected officials themselves are less likely to forget. This was a brush with politicians' greatest fear — irrelevance in an increasingly Wall Street Nation — and the best way they can win back voters' attentions is to promise to listen more carefully next time.

The nuttiest presidential election in a century closed out with plenty of suggestions (especially from the Democrats, who found Al Gore's popular-vote win to be an excellent moral pedestal). Ditch the electoral college (thank you, Hillary). Nationalize the ballot. And for gosh sakes, this is the Information Age — let's get the technology by which we read the public will out of the age of disco.

But when the slumber of the holidays is over and we wake up in January 2001, America will have a new president, a fascinating new political scene and four years before it has to worry about holding another presidential election. Chad jokes will be so 2000, and Congress will be busy enough just trying to act civilized without giving an inch to the enemy across the aisle.

Now, what was that New Year's resolution again? Oh yeah. Fix the way we vote.

How we vote now

"Equal protection," the standard by which Florida recounts were declared not ready for prime time, is something of a joke if one applies it to voting methods in the counties across the nation.

According to USA Today, the 3,141 counties in the United States use six different methods to record and tally votes: 40 percent use optical scan devices (think of No. 2 pencils and the SATs); 18 percent use punch cards (think Palm Beach and Votomatics); 15 percent use '50s-era lever machines (flip the switches and pull the lever); 12 percent use paper ballots (drop them in a box or mail them in); 9 percent use electronic touch-screens; 2 percent use Data Vote, which is punch-card voting without the Votomatics.

The remaining 4 percent use some mixture of the above.

Something can go wrong with all of them. In New York, voters complained that some switches on their lever machines were stuck, or broken off. On the optical-scan device, some voters make an X or something instead of filling in the circle, and their vote isn't picked up by the machine. As we know, absentee ballots can be confusing.

And we all know about the punch cards.

But that's just the machines. States and counties have an astounding variety of ways they register eligible voters, how late they keep the polls open, how many election staffers are available to help, and how many machines are available to vote on.

The lines in Detroit and St. Louis on Nov. 7 were more than three hours long. In Milwaukee, a man bragged on the radio he had voted for Al Gore 16 times. In Florida, reports are widespread of roadblocks, intimidation, excessive ID checks and improper disqualifications — and most of the complainants are blacks, who were supposed to be past their days of being less equal than others. Across the country, records are poorly kept and out of date.

Every year, mistakes are made and voices are ignored. This year, it mattered. Upon the necessary closer inspection, it turned out America's voting infrastructure was crawling with termites, and unable on many levels to provide the precision the Florida voters required.

Ditching the Votomatics is just the tip of the iceberg. But like the one about the 10,000 lawyers on the bottom of the ocean, it's a good start.

Votopia

Of course, democracy isn't perfect and life isn't fair, not even on Election Day. But we can at least whittle down our margin of error — and increase our cushion of trust — to modern standards. And these days, what machine do we trust the most? The friendly neighborhood ATM.

Touch-screen technology is used by less than one-tenth of the voters in America. There are few complaints, and the prospect of a nationwide network of Automatic Voting Machines, with the flashing lights and soothing blips that Americans understand, is now in vogue: See your ballots. Pick your candidates. Confirm. Press Enter. Maybe they print out receipts in case the software crashes.

Machines like this are readily available right now, from companies like Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment Inc., MicroTouch Systems Inc. and Fidlar Doubleday Inc. They run about $3,500 apiece if you buy in bulk, and they work. No chads. No recounts. No doubt.

These companies expect very brisk sales in the coming year. Meanwhile, scientists at Harvard and Berkeley are getting together to propose a foolproof national system. Conferences and symposiums on voting reform are springing up everywhere. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer promises to set up a commission to entertain all suggestions and pick us out a winner. Hillary Clinton wants to ditch the Electoral College. Bill Clinton thinks something ought to be done.

George W. Bush doesn't want to talk about it right now, but it's such a freebie for legislators — in a new year where everybody's looking for a sure thing — that it'll at least get talked about.

Heck, they might break off a piece of that surplus of ours and divvy it up 50 ways, and get all the precincts in all the counties in all the states a few machines each. Enough to keep the line moving. And get them the ship-shape maintenance plan, and have technicians on hand. Nothing's too good for our democracy.

Or it could be a grand renovation, with a nationalized ballot and of course a national network of databanks for voter registration. Flawless records with up-to-the-minute information, courtesy of the DMV. An unshakable voting system worthy of the richest, most innovative nation on this earth.

This might be something the National Governors Association might be interested in pursuing, if they felt underemployed. They could get around a big table and put the whole project in the care of the one man who might do it out of love.

Al Gore.

Some other suggestions

Constitutionally, elections really are a state affair. Do we really want to mess with that? Leave the Electoral College in place, as a mild equalizer and a needed firewall, and let the system renew itself the way it always has: out of naked political fear.

Florida, heal thyself: Jeb Bush, chasing after the last scrap of his national credibility, has already announced he will undergo a statewide renovation of the voting apparatus. Florida Republicans will be anxious to prove themselves merciful, and worthy of the decision they made to see Bush elected. There is plenty of motivation around for Florida to clean up its act, and enough public shame to raise the money. Maybe George'll even kick in a few bucks, make sure the place doesn't go Democrat.

Let there be a little national triage, fix the broke ones, and we'll continue to have the same mottled, strange and wonderful nation of polling booths we have now. We'll have pulled up our tail end, but we'll still have lots of character where things aren't going wrong, and lots of money not spent.

Let Election Day be a national holiday. It should be a day of contemplation and choice, not running out on your lunch break in the rain. Yes, some people will take the day off, and play hooky from the polls. So be it. The inspired will vote if they want to matter, just like always.

Let sleeping voters lie. The Democrats learned first-hand in Florida that turnout isn't everything. Thorough "get out the vote" drives produced record turnout thanks to first time voters, many of whom found themselves either fallen through the system's large cracks or somehow bewildered by the instructions that told them to punch through the cardboard and pick out the chad so the machine can read their vote.

The underlying contention of the Republicans in this was that the Democrats' problems were their own fault. Theresa LaPore was a Democrat. The counties with the Votomatics were Democratic counties teeming with apparently mistake-prone Democratic voters. And the Democrats are complaining about how lousy — and racist — the system is?

But they may have a point. We require our voters to make their way to polling places — or make some other arrangements — and that is arguably a good thing. The giddy thrill of democracy, of community, is palpable in those Election Day lines. But those seeking the right to vote shouldn't be denied it by intimidation or bureaucratic incompetence, and it's the government's responsibility to pass those two tests. The 2000 record is spotty on that score.

But the post-election madness focused out of necessity on the interpreting of votes, and there the voters have a responsibility too. Does the Votomatic really pose such an obstacle? However a voter made up his mind, however much attention he paid, is it unreasonable to ask him to perform a few simple tasks, hopefully culminating in an understanding of why a punch card works best when it's punched?

Unless the new president might be interested in a legacyů

Saying yes, and tackling the flaws in his election loudly and head-on, might be the most compassionate thing George W. Bush could ever do. Give his constituents the gift of unflinching honesty, and present his political enemies with the apparatus to defeat him. Certainly the Democrats would have one less thing to complain about.

And some Tuesday soon, we'll all stroll into spacious well-attended polling places, after a nice breakfast with the family, talking politics, and swipe our voter-ID card and blip in our candidates and press enter, and go home feeling confident our vote's been cast, whistling a happy tune.

And Jesse Jackson will throw up his hands and declare America a better, fairer place, and retire.

Hey, you never know.