Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ballot Boxed

Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, a devotee of Fox or MSNBC, or a pissed off moderate in the Jon Stewart mould, you have to be thankful for one thing: we settle our differences by the use of the ballot with precious little violence. At it's heart it's very straightforward: on the appointed day you show up, indicate your choice and go home. After all is said and done, the votes are counted up and the winner announced. Barring the odd election in Illinois, there's not much more involved.

Still, any system can use a going over with an eye towards improvement, especially in light of the way we live our lives and the technology that's available. Absentee ballots are one concession to reality. Some states also allow voting in a window of time before the actual election day as a way of making it more convenient. And lately many jurisdictions have been instituting new voting systems and technologies as a way to improve speed and accuracy of results.

Conceptually all of approaches strive to do the same thing: give you a private place to make your choice, then enter same into a central repository where it will eventually be counted. At its most basic, that means marking your X on a piece of paper and stuffing it into a box. Where we live, as in many other locales, machines took over, with the old lever type monsters the standard for years and years. You went into a booth, used a big lever to close the curtain behind you, and pulled a little switch indicating your choice. Moving the big lever the other way registered your vote with a satisfying "clunk," reset the machine for the next person and opened the curtains to let you out.

But those behemoths were big mechanical albatrosses, and qualified technicians to fix and maintain them were getting in short supply. Other jurisdictions tried new systems to replace them, not always with great success, One only need remember the infamous butterfly ballots and hanging chads of Florida in the 2000 Presidential race to see where a supposed improvement was actually a giant leap backwards.

Well, I fear we may heading that way again. This year's primary in our home district featured new and improved voting machines, the Image Cast Optical Scan Voting System. Again, it's billed as a step forward, but in practicality, I have my doubts.

When you got to the polling station, they checked you in as usual by verifying your signature with those on the voter registration rolls. Assuming you matched up, they handed you a paper ballot. Yes, in this e-everything, save-the-planet, don't-print-it-unless-you-have-to world, you're handed a heavy piece of stock longer than a folded New York Times. They then directed you to a "privacy booth" to mark your ballot, which turned out to be a four-sided portable carrel with absolutely no privacy. And you used a "special marking pen," which was a regular Sharpie, to completely fill in the bubble next to your choice. I felt like a fifth grader trying to shield my answers on the test from prying classmates.

Once you had it all together, you took the ballot over to the scanner. There the poll worker armed the machine to record your vote. You then took your ballot which you so kept so carefully hidden out into the clear light of day for all to see, and fed it into the slot so the optical reader could read it and record your choices. As the paper ballot dropped into a repository for later verification if needed, the machine hummed a second, then a little screen lit up to tell you your vote had been recorded.

Progress? Let's add it up. Paper ballots. Filling in ink bubbles. No privacy. Considering we have smartphones and netbooks and Mp3 players the size of a matchbooks, that Google has become like Chinese food, delivering your search results before even you finish typing it, that we've figured out how to order a double cheeseburger with fries and a shake at a kiosk and have it ready to go by the time we drive 20 feet, you'd think we could have figured out a better way to record a vote. At least they didn't make me dip my finger in purple ink: I guess we still have Iraq beat.


Marc Wollin of Bedford voted in the primary just to try out the new machines. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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