Hurrah for slow recounts

Online voting is neat, efficient -- and robs the political process of its human spirit.

Topics: 2000 Elections,

I know all this will one day be replaced by a Web page: this makeshift polling place in the rec room of an apartment building, the leatherette sofas in front of a big-screen TV where some voters are now sitting with their ballots, the fumblings over the voter rolls as people check in, the ballot-counting machine in the corner going bee-dee, bee-dee, like some electronic slot machine. Even the uncertainty of the next morning — waking up to find we still don’t know who’ll be the next president of the United States — will be gone, too, replaced by the furious efficiency of chips and fiber optics. By instantaneous, real-time counts (You are the 235,789th voter of 457,889 registered). By the predictable outlines of Microsoft Internet Explorer: clean, uniform, fast.

Internet voting is surely coming. Though online ballots cannot be made secure, though the problems of voter authentication and privacy will remain unsolvable, I suspect we’ll go ahead and do it anyway. Click here for the leader of the free world. It will be too easy, too convenient, too familiar to resist. After we have put our intimate secrets and credit card numbers online, what can prevent us from putting our elections there as well?

Knowing that, I’m taking a moment to reconsider the value of the polling place, of voting as a public, civic ritual. I have the sense I’m doing what newspapers do with the obituaries of important persons: composing an elegy while the people are still living, gathering up the valuable stuff of their lives, so that when someone dies, we can see right away what we’ve lost.

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The act of voting, to put it in computing terms, is a question of user interface. What sort of physical representation do we want to give to this most central act of citizenship? Here on one side is the browser window, looking in essence like every other Web page — the usual form to fill out, the inevitable button at the bottom which everyone has somehow decided should be labeled “Submit.” And on the other is the polling place: that slightly ramshackle affair of rec rooms and church basements and garages, where poll workers, usually retired people, run a gnarled hand down the voter roll looking for your name; that place of large purposes and small human fumblings.



At 8:30 a.m. at my polling place, there’s no sign outside yet, only a 1-by-1.5-inch yellow sticky on the door that says “VOTE HERE –>.” William Larry Noles, a retired man who says he works at the polls for “something to do,” apologizes as he brings out the official sign. “Everything’s a little late,” he says.

Inside, about 10 people are already voting. Oddly, about half of them have chosen not to stand up at the rickety little “booths” with privacy barriers, but to sit at a long table in the center of the room, where they look like students at a library, frowning with concentration at the long ballot in front of them. Six of us wait in line to check in. When I get to the desk, in a minute or two, the poll workers have trouble finding me on the rolls. The problem seems to be with the way the apartment numbers are listed at my address, C307 sorting in a separate sequence from C-306 and C-308. Eventually, the poll worker, Cecilia Bulosan, finds me and I get my ballot. Cecilia is a Filipina who seems to be in her 60s; she says she’s getting paid $82 for the day of poll working plus $25 for attending a seminar beforehand. Working nearby is Fred Silva, whom she describes — shyly, dropping her voice — as her “boyfriend.” Fred, wearing a baseball cap that says, “I’m Fantastic in Dark Places,” is standing by the Optech IIP Eagle tallying machine (“Proven solutions for the world of elections,” says the machine’s label), feeding in completed ballots. The machine keeps complaining. “Unvoted” is the message the machine keeps giving. “Blank ballot.”

Dealing with all the problems — voters missing from the rolls, people voting outside of their precincts, the ever-complaining Optech machine — is Peggy Baslow, the inspector at this precinct. She is a young woman in black-rimmed glasses with unflagging energy. She is interrupted constantly but never becomes short-tempered. “Here is what you do,” she says to the young man who is at the wrong polling place, showing him how to vote here anyway. “I’m coming,” she says to Fred every time the Optech balks. “I’m sorry,” she keeps saying to everyone, for the wait, for the confusion, for whatever little difficulties are happening now. And it’s clear she is sorry. She is competent and cares that things go well, and so no one seems to mind that the process is creaking along, just barely under control. A man near the end of the line looks around and jokes with the woman behind him. There’s a hot tub just outside the rec room, where a bald guy sits steaming in a cloud of water vapor, which both of them for some reason find very funny.

As the day goes on, Peggy, Cecilia, Fred and William help about 400 people to vote, and by the time I come back to see them, at 6:30 p.m., the rec room has become a little airless and sweaty. Seventeen people are now working on their ballots. They stand at the booths, sit at the library table, sprawl on the leatherette sofas. Fred has taken off his hat, but Peggy Baslow remains energetic and courteous. She’s still calling voters “Sir” and “Ma’am,” still saying “Thanks for voting,” as people hand in their ballots, still dealing with the hundred little complexities and anomalies of people’s lives: the one who moved from Treasure Island and doesn’t know where to vote, the person whose address is wrong, the voter who crossed out an entry on the ballot and now needs to start a fresh one.

As I watch her, it comes to me that Peggy Baslow is the perfect human interface to a democratic republic. I like the fact that the quality of the voting process has depended on her — that the experience of voting should be variable, resting on the energies of a particular individual, even if this means that another polling place might be having a less-happy voting experience. It seems somehow right that the act of electing an individual to be president of the United States should also involve the distinctions between one person and another at the polling place, that individual abilities should matter.

I like the little semi-competencies of human beings, I realize. Governance, after all, is a messy business, a world of demi-solutions and compromise, where ideals are tarnished regularly. Voting, then, should perhaps offer up the true face of government: something worked out by human beings in an energetic muddle, a creaky, lumpy process that somehow deals with the hundred little peculiarities of the people involved in it.

As I leave, I think about how the polling place is a homespun affair. Looking around at the rec room, with its humming Coke machine at the doorway, it’s impossible to feel that the government is something “out there” — a slick machine into which your ballot disappears. You can see that government is something organized — and disorganized — by human beings who mostly try to do their best. Down the block from the polling place is a restaurant, where I run into a neighbor at the bar. She has just come from voting, and we talk about the polling place, the people we saw there, how it went. My neighbor describes it all with some affection; the process of voting, she says, was “very dear.”

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I don’t think anybody called the world’s first officially binding online election “dear.” It was the Arizona Democratic Party primary, held on the Web between March 7 and 10, 2000. Joe Mohan, CEO of election.com, the company that supplied the software, didn’t make a case for the sweetness of his efforts, having grander, more sweeping things to say about this online first. “Online voting will revolutionize the election process,” he said, calling it an “embrace of the future.”

For a while after the election, a demonstration of the Arizona election ran on the company’s Web site. And so, hoping for a taste of the future I would someday have to embrace, I tried the demo, an election that immediately presented itself in a series of pretty red, white and blue forms.

There were no confusions or fumblings at this polling place. Signing in, the process that would later introduce me to Cecilia Bulosan, consisted of a few keystrokes and a click. Then came the ballot: four big blue buttons, the candidates’ names written on them in white.

I went click.

“You are about to cast your vote for Al Gore,” said a little pop-up dialog box. “Click on OK to submit your vote. Click on Cancel to choose another candidate.”

OK.

Then off the data went to a server somewhere, out there into the ether — far away from me or right next door, I had no way of knowing. The vote went into “the system”: opaque, closed, proprietary software. There was no way to see who else was voting, no neighbors to run into at a bar. No ballots or voters or poll workers: between me and my chosen candidate, nothing and no one. Democracy as magic, unpeopled, for the benefit of the people.

This solitariness seemed to please the election’s client, Arizona Democratic Party chairman Mark Fleisher. “The sizzle is the vote at home in your pajamas at 10 o’clock at night,” he enthused to USA Today after the election. It was as if voting should somehow be like shopping for an online plane ticket — best if done at home, alone, more fun if performed in a state of dishabille.

Yet that solitariness disturbed me. The sense of sitting all alone was somehow dispiriting. I did not want voting to be this disembodied, disintermediated act. The act of voting — deciding whom you’d like to elect, filling out the ballot — may indeed be the most constitutionally protected, private, secret act a citizen can perform in a democratic society. But it also takes place in a supremely social, civic context. What online voting had eliminated was precisely that tension: between personal liberty and social obligation, between the private, secret choice and its social, civic effect.

It had also turned voting into an act indistinguishable from any other online interaction. Experience is visual and physical; what we think comes to us embodied, enacted. And what my eyes and body had just offered me was an experience more like shopping than voting. Immediately after voting, I turned to ordering groceries from Webvan — forms, buttons, clicks, hardly a change in my perceptional field.

This is the image projected by the Internet voting page: an experience like shopping on the Net, picking out exactly what you want from the offerings of the world. The perfect camera or computer or plane flight — exactly what you’re looking for. But democracy is not about getting exactly what you want; it’s about the attempt to resolve differences among people when the desires of one may preclude the wants of another. It’s a sorting out of desires, leaving some inevitably unmet, even when the process works very well. Given this, I fear the visual trick of the Web page: the expectation it creates of satisfactions guaranteed, of the citizen as customer.

What most disturbed me about voting online, however, was its efficiency. This may sound odd, since speed is a good thing in a computer system. Networks have to be fast. And the Web voting page gives the illusion of cleanliness, efficiency. It projects the idea, by its very visual representation, that government, like trains perhaps, should be made to run on time.

But efficiency is a machine value, not necessarily a human one. The practice of politics is more about persuasion than it is about functioning; and persuasion is, by definition, a maddening, heat-wasting activity. In a relatively democratic system like our own, it’s perhaps better if change happens slowly, after much debate. As pointed out to me by the computer scientist David Rosenthal, in governance “slowness is a feature, not a bug.”

As I write this, for instance, in the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 8, we still don’t know who will be the next president of the United States. Florida will have to recount its ballots — those bulky, slow pieces of paper — not to mention all those absentee votes still flying or sailing or being trucked to Florida by the quaint antique practice of snail mail. If we’d voted on the Web, we’d have banished all this awful inefficiency. Click, off to the server, counted. Barring a major hack or cascading network failure (computer systems can fail spectacularly), it would all be over.

And we might be sitting stunned at the outcome: a president elected without winning the popular vote, perhaps, an election turned on a few hundred votes in a couple of precincts in Florida, a race so close that we as a nation seemed not to have had any preference at all.

But we’re spared; all that slow paper gives us time to think. Anyone turning on the radio or going to a Web page can learn about the Electoral College, how it functions, when it was set up and why. We get history lessons: the past presidents who came to office without clear popular mandates, how they governed and how the republic survived. In the achingly long days — days, forgodsakes, in this age of nanoseconds — chat rooms will be full, e-mail flames will fly, friends will call one another, neighbors who rarely talk will stop and talk on the street because this election is happening to everyone. A nation will look into its political process while it waits. And by the time the election results are known, we’ll be prepared.

Hurrah for slow, I think, as the chatter continues on the television. Waiting is good. Long live paper and polling places, and events unfolding in the fullness of time.

Ellen Ullman is a software engineer. She is the author of "Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents."

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