After the poll is over, after the break of morn, after the consultants’ leaving, after the stars are gone; Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all — many the hopes that have vanished, after the poll.
But that’s grief for tomorrow. There’s good news today.
A lot of the nation’s electronic voting machines are on the blink, can’t be repaired and there’s no money to replace them. But in many precincts the paper-and-pencil ballot, the old reliable, is back.
Election Day is regarded as a holy rite of the secular state, and the integrity of the ballot is crucial to the preservation of the faith. Guards have been erected to protect an Election Day that actually no longer exists. The states have adopted many election days, with absentee ballots and early voting. Colorado this year even requires voters to mail it in. The fate of the nation rests on a 49-cent stamp.
Pamela Smith, the president of an election-watchdog organization called Verified Voting, estimates that 70 percent of the voters across the country will be voting “by hand,” taking pencil in hand to tick the little box beside the name of the candidate they want. The old becomes the new, which is good because old is often better. Whoring after the new thing is a weakness of the modern.
Counting the votes is slower, which makes election nights much more entertaining. Electronic voting machines were supposed to have eliminated human error and made voting, and particularly vote-counting, an experience with neither fault nor fail. Has anyone ever heard of a computer behaving in a temperamental way?
“Paper, though it sounds kind of old-school,” Mzz. Smith tells The Hill, a political daily on Capitol Hill, “actually has properties that serve the elections very well.” In Florida in the year 2000, after the suspense of hanging chads, the babble and squeak of the lawyers and the decisions of the various courts were all accounted for, the federal government blew $3 billion on electronic voting machines in the several states. Punch cards and levers were out, and touch screens were in. Nothing could go wrong, but it did. Ohio, for one example, spent $115 million on upgrades. It was money that could have been better spent on downgrades.
Voting machines have deprived the voter of a delicious and tactile rite of citizenship. My first vote was in a time and place where paper was the only ballot there was, and there was no “ticking the right box.” Ticking a box was for wimps. The ballot instructed the voter to “mark through the names of the candidates you do not wish to vote for, leaving your favored candidate unmarked.”
Nothing gave me and every other voter on that good day greater pleasure than, armed with a steady hand and an Eberhard Faber No. 2, putting a mark as dark and black as I could make it through the unfavored. Scratch, scratch and scratch: “Take that, you scurvy blighter, this is exactly what you deserve.” Many was the pencil worn to a nub by the end of the day. No chad was left hanging because there were no chads, only the plain work of determined citizens.
Paper ballots, like the humans who mark and count them, are subject to fraud. What isn’t? An electronic voting machine in North Carolina “lost” 4,500 votes because it simply quit counting, like a surly clerk in the backroom. The winner in the statewide race won by only 2,000 votes. “Now what do you do?” asks Pamela Smith of the watchdog group. “You can’t do a recount. There’s nothing to recount.”
When the federal government threw billions at the states to abandon everything to electronics, the states, like everyone else lapping up federal largesse, naturally assumed that the fat years would go on forever. Now the lean years have arrived. “There is simply no money to replace [the failing machines],” Michael Shamos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, who has consulted on computerized voting in several states, tells The Hill newspaper. “You’re dealing with voting machines that are more than a decade old.”
Earl Long, the late ‘n’ great governor of the great state of Louisiana, once boasted that he could take a screwdriver and a Crescent wrench and make a voting machine play “Home on the Range.” Boastful talk, no doubt, but it’s a curious fact that occasionally the electronic machines malfunction, awarding votes to the wrong candidate, and — this is no doubt a coincidence — nearly always it’s the Democratic candidate who gets the errant votes. Paper’s not infallible, either, but you get to put it in writing.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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