COMPUTERS HAVE TOUCHED almost every aspect of our lives, or at least it seems so. Twenty-first-century society is complexly intertwined with all things digital. Software and the programming that create it instantaneously work daily miracles in our lives -- so, of course someone would connect software and elections. That, however, is not necessarily a good thing.
The zeroes-and-ones electromagnetic technologies that enable the most utilitarian and wonderful aspects of our connected culture have their limitations. They can't, for example, replace sunlight or air or soil, or the foods that grow as a result. They can't replace a mother's loving touch or a suitor's adoring gaze.
Nor can they build the kind of gut confidence in an electoral process that is possible when human beings from my town, whom I know and trust, handle, under the watchful gaze of others from my town, every voted ballot. It's a confidence gained when these individuals study every vote cast, call out each vote, see it recorded by another, and then together tabulate all the votes.
This is hands-on democracy. That it's a vanishing species is a crying shame. But, this fall, Commissioner Jason Nastke and I have brought it to Columbia County, because our alternative was to submit our democracy to invisible and sometimes-fickle electromagnetism -- in other words, the processes by which computerized voting machines scan a paper ballot, interpret the votes cast on it, record those votes and tally all the votes they've handled.
Yes, computers can add accurately. Yes, they can scan accurately. But tasks that may sound simple given our techno-immersed culture really aren't simple at all. The half-dozen programs that run our optical-scan voting machines are remarkably complex and well beyond the ken of you or me, of my neighbor or yours. In fact, they're so complex that computer scientists say that testing them to confirm that they contain no errors, inadvertent or malicious, is “beyond the state of the art.”
That doesn't build my confidence. Nor do I gain confidence that the machines are accurate simply on New York State's say-so. Since I, as election commissioner, have to certify to the accuracy of any election run under my watch, that steers me in the direction of a more elemental process -- a hand count under the watchful gaze of individuals who are invested in its accuracy.
Our state handed us a $50-millon lemon when it required that we use computers to count votes, because computers operate via electromagnetic processes that are a mystery to anyone who hasn't studied every single one of the resident programs in every single one of the machines -- not to mention the electronic hardware. We were far better off when we could use simpler, less-expensive lever voting machines that operate via simple physical processes that anyone can understand and check.
So, the Columbia County Board of Elections is making lemonade. We're using this as an opportunity to boost civic participation in our elections. In a hands-on, see-it-with-their-own-eyes way, we're having individuals count the votes that were cast by their neighbors. No one in our county will speculate that the results were skewed because the machines didn't work right.
We're even exploring the idea of taking hands-on democracy a step further. As some municipalities in New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts do, we'd like, perhaps next year, to have the paper ballots hand-counted at the poll sites on election night. It would be done by fresh ballot counters, sworn to preserving the integrity of the vote just as our election-day inspectors are. It's ambitious, but it's democracy done right. Voters and poll workers in those municipalities that now conduct election-night hand counts benefit from a confidence in the vote totals and a sense of investment in the electoral process that you won't find replicated anywhere computers do the adding, which is virtually every place else in the US.
It would take a few hours to get election results. That's a small price to pay for having complete, widespread, grassroots confidence in the process. Besides, given that some political campaigns span not just months but years, we think the cultural demand for software-enabled instant gratification could be tamped down and replaced with the patience a democracy deserves.
Virginia Martin is Democratic election commissioner of Columbia County.