Voting 2004: Ctrl-Alt-Del

Four years ago, I was getting ready to buy my bus ticket to New York to vote in person when my absentee ballot finally arrived. I had applied months earlier and finally got my ballot the Saturday before the election.

Although there was a presidential election, I immediately skipped to the U.S. Senate race to cast my vote against Hillary Clinton. The elections board had provided me with a small pin with which to poke out the perforated square next to Rick Lazio’s name. For the sake of thoroughness, I turned the ballot over and pulled the square completely off of the back of the paper.

After inspecting my ballot closely, I sealed it back up in the envelope and mailed it off.

About a week later, those tiny paper squares got a name: chads. As a very cub reporter, I got to be involved closely with one of the most spectacular moments in American political history. On December 12, after weeks of wrangling, I walked through the freezing cold to the U.S. Supreme Court to get a copy of the decision on Bush v. Gore (which I sold for five dollars of beer money to a producer at Black Entertainment Television).

The dimpled and pregnant chads (and the accusations of chad-eating) thrust very unsophisticated issues into the heart of the presidential election. Europeans were laughing at us, with BBC newscasters making breathless (and truthless) statements like “Election Day was 5 weeks ago, but America still has no President.”

Because there had been a problem, a solution was needed. And clearly, the solution would have to (A) come from Congress, (B) increase the federal government’s role, and (C) involve computers.

If there is any consensus in the poisonous political atmosphere that is Capitol Hill, it is that Congress ought to involve itself in more of our lives, and that computers and government are good solutions to most problems.

So, Congress right away got to work on the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), with Democrats screaming bloody murder every day that passed without a bill and the media gravely waiting for passage of this critical legislation.

Many states and localities–including Palm Beach County, Florida–adopted computer voting machines. These machines are superior, of course, because, as we all know computers never crash, right?

True to form, the voting machines in Palm Beach last week frizzed out during a demonstration of how these new improved computers would work.

Old mechanical voting machines and paper ballots are far from perfect as we all know, but computers have one distinct disadvantage which could be particularly disastrous in the case of a contested election: you can’t tell what the heck is going on inside them.

When it comes to technology, Washington is like that kid who gets a new stopwatch and all of the sudden wants to time everything possible: (“Mom, did you know takes Dad only six minutes and twelve seconds to finish a bottle of beer at dinner?”). Congressmen, many of whom don’t know how to check their own e-mail, have a religious faith in technology. This is why every balding white head at the State of the Union would nod when Bill Clinton would promise that Johnny could read once we could put the Internet in every classroom.

The saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” ought to be taken seriously, and very literally. Voting in Florida and in many parts of the country was less than perfect in the past. Congress has tried to make it better. Election Day will show whether they have, but so far, things don’t look great on that score.

Things really need to be broken–that is, not working at all–before a novel government solution can have even odds of improving the situation.

It would be foolish to say that computers or technology always or even usually mess things up. On the contrary, our society runs far smoother today because of them. But we ought to be diligent and guard against our faults. These days, we are far too likely to trust technology–it has become something of a faith for our secular society.

Florida in a few weeks may show us the bitter fruits of our newest golden calf.

Tim Carney is a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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