It's The Bureaucracy, Stupid

There’s been a lot of coverage of problems with new touch-screen voting machines, some of it legitimate (when they don’t work at all), and some of it tinfoil-hat loony (they’re programmed to steal elections!).

A couple of observations: The fallout from the 2000 recounts in south Florida was a bit like the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, in that the resulting public reaction was so massive, it gave a lot of bureaucrats an excuse to (a) turn their own personal wish-lists into policy, and (b) spend a whole lot of new money without much oversight.

In the case of voting machines, the bureaucratic impulse resulted in governments buying the latest, greatest, and most expensive technology they could find. But if you’ll remember, the complaint about the south Florida machines wasn’t that they were too old and archaic (although that was a contributor, particularly for the punch-card ballots), it was that the ballots were confusing to some, and the machines didn’t tally votes with enough accuracy.

As it happens, I was a Florida voter in 2000. I was living in Panama City, up on the panhandle (yep, where the polls hadn’t yet closed when the state was prematurely called for Gore). Bay County used a ‘complete the arrow’ ballot back then, where voters drew a line with a Sharpie to indicate their choice of candidates. The paper ballots were optically scanned, and I believe the scanner kicked out unreadable ballots immediately, so that the voter could make corrections on the spot if there was a problem. In the recount, Bay County had zero vote changes, due in no small part to the simplicity of the voting mechanism.

The ‘complete the arrow’ system was cheap (in money terms, Palm Beach County is to Bay County what the Taj Mahal is to a run-down Motel 6), accurate, and dependable, and it included a paper trail of marked ballots that a dim-bulb third-grader could easily understand.

So why did all these localities buy unproven, no-paper-trail voting machines since then? Probably because the new ones look cool, and cost more, and hey, if we don’t spend all that Federal voting machine money, we won’t get as much the next time…

UPDATE: Just to clarify, I don’t think security concerns about the new ballot machines are loony; I think those concerns are justified and well-taken, particularly in that there’s no paper audit trail.

That said, the conspiracy theories about Diebold purposefully programming the machines to produce Republican electoral victories are as nutty as your average Kucinich voter.