Voting precision

Posted: Oct 29, 2006 12:01 AM
Voting precision

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.

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.