In machines we trust

If Bush is right that human beings are incapable of counting votes, how can we rely on them to govern us?

Published November 16, 2000 7:08PM (EST)

Garbage in -- garbage out.

This pithy saying dates from the earliest days of computing, decades ago. It's an expression of hard-earned programming wisdom. Basically, it means that the result you get from a machine is only as good as the information you provide to the machine. Good data gets good results; garbage begets garbage.

It's a principle that's worth keeping in mind as the saga of the Florida recount continues. Both sides' arguments are coming to hinge on one question: Which do you trust to do a better job of counting votes -- machines or people?

In their dueling public addresses Wednesday night, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush staked out opposite positions. Gore, a politician who has always been enthusiastic about the ways computer technology can improve people's lives, placed his faith in hand recounts by "real people." Bush, a candidate who has stumped for the restoration of human dignity to the political process, rejected the "subjectivity" of hand counting for the ostensible objectivity of the machine.

Gore, the technocrat, told the nation, "When there are serious doubts, checking the machine count with a careful hand count is accepted as the best way to know the true intentions of the voters."

Bush responded: "As Americans have watched on television, they have seen for themselves that manual counting, with individuals making subjective decisions about voter intent, introduces human error and politics into the vote-counting process. Each time these voting cards are handled, the potential for errors multiplies. Additional manual counts of votes that have been counted and recounted will make the process less accurate, not more so."

Now, every American listening to these two men understood what neither of them could bring himself to say -- that each one's preference for man or machine was based on his calculation of which method of vote counting would likely give him the best shot at winning this election. Gore thinks hand recounts might scrape together the 300-plus votes he needs to pass Bush; Bush wants to stick with his 300-vote, machine-tallied lead.

Gore has centuries of precedent to back him. After all, machine counting only entered the picture in recent decades, yet somehow our nation managed to hold valid elections without them. Many states, including Bush's Texas, have statutes on the books that specifically allow for hand recounts as a sensible way of determining the rightful outcome of a close or disputed vote.

Bush's argument depends on two notions: First, there is the matter of the "hanging chads" -- partially punched holes in voting cards that could fall out completely as a result of repeated handling. But since no one is arguing that completely unpunched holes would spontaneously fall out, these "hanging chads" mostly represent actual votes by actual voters that should be counted, even if the machines often miss them on the first pass. If Bush truly "honors and respects the value of every single vote," as he said Wednesday, then he cannot object to counting the hanging chads.

The second notion behind Bush's argument is more substantial. Bush maintains that hand recounts, unlike machine counts, introduce "human error and politics" into a process that ought to be purely objective. Now, obviously human judgment, unlike machine judgment, is sway to human feeling. And in the chaos of the recounting hall one can well imagine partisan passions kicking in. But that's why the recounting rules require representatives from both campaigns to observe the process and call out any foul play they might witness.

In any case, it's not as though "human error and politics" are absent from every other aspect of the election resolution except the counting. Should we replace the Florida secretary of state -- or the members of the Florida Supreme Court -- with more "objective" computers? The entire machinery of governance is shot through with partisanship from top to bottom. But no one has ever suggested that the prevalence of human error and politics in all three branches of our government means we should scrap the executives, legislatures and courts and replace them with microprocessors.

Machines may not be Republican or Democratic, but the idea that machines are inherently unbiased is a myth -- as Steven Johnson argued in a recent piece. Machines have biases based on their design, the assumptions of their designers and their particular ways of handling problematic data. Punch-card voting machines, for instance, are notorious for being biased toward undercounting votes. That's why the recounts that Florida has already held -- machine recounts rather than hand recounts -- resulted in additional votes being tallied for both Gore and Bush.

So the Republicans' sudden dislike of hand counts reveals something deeper than merely a fear that hand counts could cost them the election. When Bush demands that we take people out of the process and trust in machines, he is tapping into a historic American prejudice -- a blind faith in scientific objectivity and trust in "experts" that peaked in the middle of the last century. Our absolute trust in the men in white coats withered over the years thanks to environmental catastrophes, social changes and their own arrogance. And the computer's once-golden aura of infallibility has been forever lost now that the majority of Americans use computers themselves and understand how thoroughly bug-ridden and error-prone they actually are.

Today, Bush's appeal to the superiority of the machine strikes a note of almost cartoonish anachronism -- it's as out of touch with contemporary life as his father's wonderment at the supermarket scanner was a decade ago. George W.'s faith in modern technology's accuracy could only be held by someone who does not use that technology as part of his daily work. Of course, he's got advisors for that.

Since this election is coming down to a choice between human judgment and machine calculation, let's think about some other situations that force us to make the same choice. When your 747 is coasting toward the runway at night in a storm, you're probably glad that the autopilot has locked in on its beacon and the pilot doesn't have to squint for the runway lights through the rain clouds. But you hope and pray that the pilot is alert and ready to override those instruments if he notices that they've gone on the fritz. Similarly, during the Cold War our radar systems scanned the skies for any sign of a surprise missile attack from the other side of the globe; but if the radar squawked "Incoming!" we did not launch a retaliatory strike before human analysts checked the data -- thus could World War III be averted.

The pattern is clear: In routine circumstances we're content to let machines do the work for us -- but in life-or-death situations, we place our ultimate faith in human judgment.

The parallel in vote counting seems pretty obvious. Machine counting works fine when the margin of victory is comfortable and the outcome is not in dispute. When things get hairy, though, we put our trust in human hands. How could it be any other way?

If elections were meant to be decided by infallible machines rather than fallible human beings, as Bush would have it, we could all forget about voting. Just program a supercomputer to choose our president. Feed in all the data about each candidate's positions. Give the machine all our economic data. Let it crunch through the Social Security projections and the prescription drug plans and the budget analyses and tell us who should run the country.

It might not be democratic, but it would certainly eliminate all that nasty "human error and politics" from the process. Garbage in -- garbage out!

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2000 Elections Al Gore George W. Bush