It wasn't always about the chad

Election 2004

September 27, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The last time many voters really thought about the way they cast ballots was nearly four years ago, as they watched a Florida election judge peer through a magnifying glass at a simple punch card, straining to determine who its original handler hoped would be president.

The recount in 2000 is what gave birth to Vote: The Machinery of Democracy, an exhibit displaying the ways Americans have voted over the years, which is running through the end of January at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

It is also what spurred officials across the nation to think long and hard about the way Americans choose politicians, causing many to abandon systems that had long worked for them and leap into new and untested technology to avoid becoming the "next Florida."

So here, just past the metal detectors at the museum's Constitution Avenue entrance, the exhibit begins with a display case that houses that very magnifying glass, once owned by Broward County's Robert Rosenberg, and a copy of the infamous butterfly ballot from neighboring Palm Beach County, which may have changed the course of the last four years in so many ways.

History as portrayed in this exhibit shows what officials around the state and the country are learning all over again: Americans have long searched for the perfect way to vote and have often found that each apparent advance comes with imperfections.

"It's almost as if you take two steps forward and one step back because every system has potential pitfalls," said curator William L. Bird Jr. "It's nailing down the details. We've had many `perfect' machines."

So many machines, even now.

The centerpiece of the exhibit stretches across the floor -- an enormous map of the United States color-coded to show what voters in each county will be using to cast ballots on Nov. 2.

A kaleidoscope of colors can often be found within a single state. Blue is for lever machines and green for optical scan. Orange is for old-fashioned pen-on-paper ballots, and purple denotes the newest technology, including the electronic touch-screens that Maryland rolled out in March's primary.

"The Constitution says you will have elections, but it's up to you how you count," Bird said.

The optical systems, in which voters mark their choices on preprinted ballots that are scanned and read by a computer, are the most common -- 32 percent of voters are expected to use them this fall -- and, experts say, among the most reliable.

As visitors walk into the museum, they invariably wander over to their home state and county to check out what method they will use to vote in November. Often, they start to wonder why, in the 21st century, one president is elected using so many different methods for letting their choices be heard.

"It's terrible. Look at it -- even in one state it's not the same," said Doris Bergen, an education professor from the multicolored swing state of Ohio, who marveled at the map with her husband, Joel Fink, a retired school administrator.

They have happily voted using punch cards for years. They never gave it a second thought until they saw what happened in Florida.

"I grew up believing we had a valid and reliable system; that was what was most upsetting to me in 2000," Fink said. "I'd like to think someone will come up with a fail-safe system."

They don't like the idea of the new electronic machines, which the map shows their county will use. It turns out that the county recently halted a plan to buy a touch-screen system, waiting to see if it can be improved.

"The reason our democracy has worked is because people have had confidence in the basic validity of the system," Bergen said. "When we have a close election, we don't have an uprising. People accept the results even if they don't agree with them."

But the results were more difficult to accept four years ago when the machinery was challenged.

"We're still questioning the result of the last election," she said. "We don't want to be questioning the result of the next election."

Computer fears

The touch-screen voting machines -- which don't provide paper receipts -- have been battered with criticism from computer expert after computer expert. They worry whether computers, which are vulnerable to everything from hacking to crashing, can be trusted in elections. They worry about security and accuracy. Many think the only way to assure an honest reflection of voter desires is to add a paper record that can be checked if problems arise -- reverting to the very paper that many elections officials hoped to be rid of.

Officials "are basically in the business of moving paper," Bird said. "Somebody comes along with an idea for a paperless machine, it's kind of a seductive opportunity, if people will put their complete faith in a machines."

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