On Nov. 7, 38 percent of the nation's voters will use touch-screens to record their choices, according to Election Data Services. Unlike optical scanners that read markings put on paper ballots, most touch-screen machines -- including those which The New York Times reports will be used in about half of the 45 districts with the most closely contested House races -- produce no paper that can be consulted for verification of the results, if a recount is required.
Maryland's new $106 million touch-screen system melted into a chaos of mechanical and human errors in last month's primary election. Lawsuits have been filed in five states seeking to block use of touch-screen machines.
Today's political climate -- hyperpartisanship leavened by paranoia and exploited by a national surplus of lawyers -- makes this an unpropitious moment for introducing new voting technologies that will be administered by poll workers who often are retirees for whom the task of working a DVD player is a severe challenge. Furthermore, an election is, after all, a government program, and readers of Genesis know that new knowledge often brings trouble. So we should not be surprised if, on Nov. 7, new voting machinery does what new technologies -- dams, bridges, steamships, airplanes -- have done through history: malfunction.
Football, in its disproportionate pursuit of error-free officiating, now relies on instant replays because ... well, because it can. This technology does indeed reduce human error. But it also reduces games to coagulation as players stand around waiting for officials to study video in the hope of achieving a degree of precision and certainty more appropriate to delicate surgery than to the violent thrashing of huge padded men in what is -- lest we forget, as the judicial solemnities of instant replay cause us to forget -- a game.
Democracy is not a mere game. But -- write this on a piece of paper, using a No. 2 pencil -- neither is it an activity from which it is sensible to demand more precision than can reasonably be expected when, on a November Tuesday, 100 million people record billions of political choices.
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