Jeff Pelline: E-voting: Even Lou Grant could do it
One of the hottest issues in Tuesday’s election has nothing to do with a politician: It is about a machine.
I’m referring to the electronic touch-screen voting machines being used in Nevada County for the first time. I walked into the elections office last Monday to vote early and was the first one to cast an e-ballot, according to the clerk. Although e-voting is voluntary, some of you will want to try it. More than one third of the nation is expected to cast touch-screen ballots on Tuesday, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.
Many people worry that e-voting will confuse voters and lead to erroneous tallies. Actor Ed Asner, AKA Lou Grant and star of a Hallmark movie that recently was filmed in Nevada City, is telling voters to use paper ballots instead. Politics aside, I doubt the TV character Lou Grant would embrace e-voting anyway; this curmudgeon was the epitome of a “technophobe.”
E-voting risks include vulnerability to computer malfunctions, inadequate training of poll workers and confusing instructions. A Princeton University study recently cast doubt over Diebold Inc.’s electronic voting machines, suggesting some were vulnerable to a computer virus. (“Ohh, nooo, Mr. Bill!”, we just elected “Sluggo” president.)
The mass switch to electronic voting stems from – get this – the Help America Vote Act passed by Congress in 2002. That’s fodder for a David Letterman monologue.
As always, the media is busy painting worst-case scenarios for Tuesday. A front-page article in the New York Times on Oct. 18 reported that some electronic voting machines sent to Yolo County only worked in Vietnamese.
“Talk about panic,” an election official told the paper. “We’ve got gray-haired ladies as poll workers looking around stunned.” (No wonder many gray-haired ladies don’t like the New York Times – a gray lady in its own right – and opt for Fox News instead).
Our county supervisors voted to spend $250,000 to rent the Diebold voting machines. According to the Elections Office, “One touch-screen voting machine will be located in every polling place on Tuesday, in order to comply with federal law. Voters who desire to vote electronically will need to notify the precinct board officials that they do not want a paper ballot.”
An adventurer, I decided to try out the e-voting machine ahead of Tuesday’s election and wound up being the guinea pig. The e-voting flap is not all as awful as it sounds, at least for “end user’s” like us. For one, nobody is being forced to cast an electronic ballot – it is voluntary.
When I called the Elections Office last month to ask about e-voting, I was put on hold for a long time (“Huh? What?”) and then was told that the voting machine hadn’t arrived. I left my name and phone number and received a call last Friday that the machine was up and running. (Thanks for the courteous service).
I got around to e-voting last Monday. Three of the clerks scrambled around, making sure the machine was working. This took about 10 minutes. Full-scale training got underway this week, however.
Here’s what you’ll experience: The touch-screen voting machine looks like a computer monitor turned sideways, standing waist high on four aluminum legs. (R2-D2 is better looking.) The clerk handed me a plastic voting card, about the size of a credit card, and I slid it into a slot on the machine.
On the screen, I adjusted the text size to large, and I voted by touching the boxes that reflected my choices. An “X” appears in the box when you touch it. After finishing, I reviewed the selections (19 pages worth of material) and touched “print ballot.” “Your vote is cast,” a soothing electronic voice said. I returned the voting card to the clerk and was out the door.
I hate to sound Pollyanish (most journalists do), but e-voting worked fine. It took 10 minutes, including some background reading. The large text feature on the touch screen makes it easier to read the fine print on the ballot measures.
Some words of warning: some pages ask you to vote for one race or ballot measure per page, while others ask you to vote for two or more. Don’t advance the page until you have voted for all of them.
Touching the “print ballot” page does not print a ballot for you; it prints one for the Elections Office for tallying. So don’t be disappointed that you don’t get a paper receipt – one major criticism of the e-ballot. You still get an “I voted” sticker from a clerk, which I always wear proudly.
No doubt our Elections Office could still encounter problems, with confused voters, long lines or in tallying votes. This could occur anywhere else, jeopardizing close races.
The Doolittle-Brown congressional race in our 4th district is getting contentious and could be closer than expected, according to some political pundits. Our paper broke a story this week about Doolittle campaign ads drawing ire from Peanuts’ creator Charles Shultz’ son, Monte, of Nevada City, on grounds of copyright infringement. (see http://www.theunion.com/article/20061031/NEWS/110310157). That’s serious comic relief!
Another major race could be lopsided, at least according to the pollsters. Hint: Even the liberal San Francisco Chronicle endorsed him (see http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/10/18/EDGPRLRT1R4.DTL). This surprised me. Perhaps my dad will resubscribe.
Next Tuesday’s ballot also includes a slew of state ballot initiatives. Isn’t that what we elect our legislators for?
As for e-voting, I continue to worry about its reliability. I hope enough safeguards are in place. Still, when it comes to selecting your candidates on a touch screen, even Lou Grant could figure it out.
Jeff Pelline is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays Contact him at 477-4235, email@example.com, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.
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