Ever since election day on November 6, 2007 news reports in Cleveland have been obsessing over the fact that the results were delayed by a couple of hours due to a systems crash that required the backup to kick in.
I am puzzled by this obsession with speed in elections. Why is there such a rush to get election results out so quickly? This drive for speed seems particularly paradoxical in the US where election campaigns are dragged out longer than in any other country and where there is a long time interval between voting day and the newly elected person actually taking office. New office holders typically take over at the beginning of the following year, allowing for a two-month transition period. The new president does not take the oath of office until January 20.
Because of the way election day is enshrined into the constitution, politicians can plan their campaigns years in advance. The campaign for the presidency in 2008 began nearly two years before and even before we have even a single primary election, candidates and voters are already experiencing election fatigue. And yet, as soon as the polls close, there is a desperate stampede to get the election results declared as soon as possible. Even though the actual results themselves are usually released within twelve hours of the polls closing, the media cannot wait even for that and set up elaborate exit polling systems so that they can call the results almost immediately after (or even before) the polls close.
The election debacle of 2000 showed what happens when people are in such a rush to declare the winner. But exactly the wrong lesson seems to have been drawn from that debacle. We are now going towards even more high-tech voting systems using computers that will presumably give the actual results even sooner.
I think this is the wrong way to go. We should go back to a completely paper ballot system, where people mark an X in a box next to their favored candidate. Then we should have human beings count and, if necessary, recount the votes. The counters should be given plenty of time, a week, two weeks, even a month, to do a thorough job and the rest of us should simply go about our normal business until they are ready to declare the winners. As I said before, nothing at all hinges on a quick release of the results.
In fact, in our desire for speed, we are decreasing public confidence in the credibility of elections. After all, anyone remotely familiar with computers knows that while their arithmetic powers are far superior to that of humans, they are highly susceptible to hacking and thus to fraud. What is worse, computer fraud is hard to detect and can be almost invisible except to very expert eyes looking closely. I have far more faith in humans counting paper to produce an honest result than I do in computers.
Of course, no system is perfect. Paper ballot elections can be manipulated too. One can have ballot box stuffing, stolen ballot boxes, and counting errors. But to do those things on a significant scale as to sway the results requires the collusion of a lot of people at a very low level, and such conspiracies are hard to keep secret and fairly easy to detect. Electronic fraud requires just a few sophisticated people working at a high level of expertise.
I am not a Luddite who wants to back to the old days for misplaced romantic reasons. I think elections are far too important to have anything but the best system. And in this particular case, the best system just happens to be one of the oldest systems.
POST SCRIPT: Paper ballots in Northeast Ohio?
I wrote the above post a couple of months ago when I was called for jury duty during the week of November 5, 2007 just after election day and was hanging around in the waiting room. I did not post it immediately due to the long ‘evolution and the law’ series that was running at that time. Hence I was pleasantly surprised to see a front page news headline in the Plain Dealer of December 15, 2007 that said that Ohio’s secretary of state is pushing for paper ballots for our area because of all the trouble we have had with the electronic systems. On my return to the US last week from a trip to Sri Lanka, I read that the push for paper ballots in Ohio is gaining ground.
I think this is a good idea. I think that paper ballots are better and this might be a chance to demonstrate that fact to the nation.