I Want Computerized Elections!

On election night, my TV remote was in danger of giving off smoke because I was flipping through channels at a maniacal speed, looking for some definitive information about the results of the US presidential race. When I finally went to bed, Al Gore had apparently won. The television broadcasters had given him the electoral votes he needed, thanks to the state of Florida.

When I turned on the TV the next morning, I learned that we didn’t know who our next president would be. I collected my email and received an interesting message from an acquaintance in Moscow who reported that the Russian press was fascinated by the fact that the US population didn’t yet know the name of our next president. My friend said that the overriding theme in the Russian reports about the election was that the United States is the most computerized country in the world and we still couldn’t get accurate election results in a timely fashion. Good point. Why isn’t the US election process computerized? Plenty of methods exist to implement this function in a reasonable—including financial considerations—manner.

I don’t mean diving right in to Internet voting; I mean replacing paper ballots with computers, and either replacing voting machines with computers or attaching a computer device to the machines to send the numbers to a central computer. Those big, clunky voting machines cost a fortune to buy, warehouse, maintain, and move in and out of polling places twice a year. Just the cost involved in setting up the ballot choices in those machines would probably pay for a host of computer devices.

Generally, we count votes by having election workers open the results pane of the machine and yell the totals to another election worker who writes the numbers on a form. Another worker from a different political party supervises each worker. The forms are delivered to a local voting official by car, bus, horse and buggy, or whatever (some cities use police officers who must go to all the polling places, pick up the forms, and drive them to a central location, which probably makes burglars very happy). A T1 or Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) would be faster, cheaper, and more efficient—so would a slow modem.

And why don't we open absentee ballots on election day morning and enter them into a computer so that the totals are available when the other votes are counted? Some states don't open absentee ballots at all unless the election results for a particular race are close (the state legislature usually determines the definition of "close"). The whole process is just too much trouble. Wouldn't it be nice (and fair) if the absentee voters who live in those states and go to all the trouble to apply for, fill out, and mail their absentee votes actually got to vote, even if the race wasn't "close."

And just think how computers would cure poorly designed voting ballots that cause confusion. Currently, voters who punch buttons to the right of the name they like might inadvertently vote for the candidate to the right of the button, resulting in a vote for the opposition or for a candidate from a minor party. Having the ability to highlight the candidate’s name on a computer screen would solve the problem.

If we can deliver numbers from computer to computer to computer, maybe the media would stop using exit polls to announce election winners. Exit poll responses are not the same as counting votes, and their use is a disservice. By hiring experts who guess, the media is creating news, not reporting it.

And, maybe displaying an accurate vote count to the US population, especially in a close presidential election, would force us to look at the Electoral College system. Perhaps it's time to reengage in the debate that took place between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in the days when our country was developing its Constitution. That debate, a fascinating study of diverse political philosophies and a harbinger of the "states rights" debate that would grow to increasing proportions in ensuing years, is worth examining.

I bet that anyone who reads Windows 2000 Magazine probably has enough knowledge to write a simple script or program that logs on a user, locks down the computer, opens an installed election software program, then shuts down the program so the next person coming into the booth can't see the previous user's vote. In fact, you can probably automate the curtain opening and closing (think InfraRed).

If you can come up with such a program or script, send it to me at [email protected] I’ll award a prize to a person picked from random out of the pool of accurate programs (accurate means the solutions look as if they’ll work). Originality, humor, and cleverness are appreciated, but not necessary to win.

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