The hoariest jest in conservatism's repertoire is that the three least credible assertions in the English language are "The check is in the mail,"
"Of course I'll respect you as much in the morning" and "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." Which brings us to the exquisitely named Help America Vote Act.
Having fixed Iraq and New Orleans, the federal government's healing touch is now being applied to voting. As a result, days -- perhaps weeks -- might pass after Election Day without the nation knowing which party controls the House or Senate. If that happens, one reason might be HAVA, that 2002 bit of federal helpfulness.
For more than two centuries before Congress passed HAVA, Americans voted. Really. Unlike today, those who were elected -- Clay, Webster, Lincoln and lesser lights -- often were more complex and sophisticated than the voting machinery.
Using pencils to make marks on paper, and later using machines to punch holes in paper ballots, voters -- without federal help; imagine -- caused congresses and presidents to come and go. States ran elections; some ran them better than others. Some ballots have been better designed than others, as have some voting machines. Most have been adequate. The gross defects of American voting practices were laws that established or permitted discrimination and other abuses. Tardily, but emphatically, those laws were changed and other abuses were halted.
Then came 2000 and Florida and the 36-day lawyers' scrum about George W. Bush's 537-vote margin of victory. In response to which, Congress passed HAVA, which in 2006 may produce fresh confirmation of the prudential axiom that the pursuit of the perfect is the enemy of the good.
The lesson that should have been learned from Florida was: In Florida, as in life generally, one should pursue as much precision as is reasonable -- but not more. When, as very rarely happens, a large electorate, such as that state's 6.1 million voters in 2000, is evenly divided, the many errors and ambiguities that inevitably will occur during the marking of millions of ballots will be much more numerous than the margin of victory. That is unfortunate, but no great injustice will be done, no matter who is declared the winner in a contest that is essentially tied.
Unfortunately, the lesson the nation chose to learn from Florida was that American technological wizardry could prevent such highly unusual events, and no expense should be spared to do so. Hence HAVA, which made $3.8 billion available for states to purchase the most modern voting equipment.