Is voting all about the `ker-chunk'?

State's problems recall history of voting technology disputes

October 22, 2006|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff

For many Americans of a certain age, a trip to the polls conjures up a certain mechanical ritual - the big handle that closed that curtain, putting you in a secure private space; the solid feel of the metal levers that moved into position next to the chosen candidates; the closing theatrical gesture as the curtain opened and your vote was recorded.

"There was a satisfying `ker-chunk' when you moved that lever back," says Bryan Pfaffenberger, a historian of technology at the University of Virginia. "You felt something physical had happened. You don't get that experience with the touch-screen systems."

The touch-screens Pfaffenberger was referring to are computerized voting systems that have swept the nation in response to a congressional mandate to produce more secure voting systems after the vote-count train wreck that followed the 2000 presidential balloting.

Problems in Maryland's September primary - some because of software glitches - have turned up the volume of the chorus questioning these new systems' reliability.

As those computerized systems have multiplied, so has a back-to-basics counter-movement, a return to one of the oldest election technologies - the paper ballot. Some of this is informal, such as the calls in Maryland for voters to use absentee ballots, because of concerns about the new machines.

Elsewhere, it has come from decisions made by local election officials that go in a radically different direction. In Oregon, all votes are cast by mail. And that's true of more and more ballots in California and many other states.

Truth be told, Pfaffenberger says, there is no fail-safe voting system. Every one has its flaws, not the least of which are the all-too-human vulnerabilities of the people using it. But Pfaffenberger says the current moves to touch-screens and paper ballots illustrate an interesting struggle that has been going on since machines first got involved in voting.

"Throughout the history of voting technology, there are two different cultural beliefs about elections and technology," he says.

"One of those strongly believes that the way to solve the electoral problems is to impose a reliable modern technology and keep humans out of the process as much as possible. There has always been a contrasting perspective that says we should not trust this technology, that it is capable of making mistakes and that the community must be involved."

Critics of computerized voting argue that humans are too far removed from the process, that an election could be stolen - or compromised - either by an undetectable cyber-crime, or by some code-writing goof-up, invisible to human eyes. Just such an occurrence is a major part of the plot in the new Barry Levinson movie Man of the Year.

But beyond that is the missing "ker-chunk," the comfort of old technology.

"You felt something physical had happened that made a difference in the universe," Pfaffenberger says. "That leads me to think that some anxiety with the new technology is psychological.

"You are sending your vote off into the ether without seeing any physical evidence that anything has happened," he says.

Our comfort level with the lever machines is probably due more to familiarity than to anything else. Robert Friedel, a historian of technology at the University of Maryland, College Park, points out that people are often leery of any new technology.

"When zippers were first introduced for men's trousers and women's skirts, serious attention was paid to the `risks' associated with the new technology," he says. "These risks far exceeded - especially for men - those associated with rivals, such as buttons. But after much effort, the risks came to be seen as manageable, largely through familiarity and a certain amount of behavioral adjustment."

And, in fact, voters were not all that comfortable with the lever-action machine when it was introduced in New York state in the late 19th century.

"It's exactly the same response today that was heard 100 years ago," says Douglas W. Jones, a computer scientist who specializes in election technology at the University of Iowa. "Those machines were new technology that was on the cutting edge, state of the art. They were more complicated than the early automobiles, than the highest-tech steam engines of the era. They had zillions of moving parts."

Pfaffenberger agrees. "If you go back to newspaper reports of the 1920s ... people were saying almost exactly the same thing that they are today."

Many said the first voting machines were a conspiracy foisted by one party on another. But the conspiracy was to try to get votes counted correctly, not altered by political bosses.

When voting machines first appeared, most elections used ballots printed up by various parties with their slates of candidates. Political operatives handed voters a ballot and a dollar or so and watched them vote to make sure they put that ballot in the box.

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