Two Bad Calls: The Faulty Ballots, The Bumbling Process

Americans will be asking questions about the 2000 election for some time to come. Here are two big ones:

How could the world's most secure democracy have ended up with a balloting system in which millions of votes routinely get lost, miscounted, stolen, or spoiled? The premise seems to be: What the hell, it's close enough for politics.

There is nothing more fundamental to a free and fair election than an accurate count. But on the way to the 21st century we belatedly realized that we're stuck with 19th-century voting technology.

Actually, it's worse than that. The voting machine that recorded my ballot, using a technology invented in the 1890s, is more reliable than the punch-card technology contrived in the 1950s. Voting machines have nice, clearlevers, splendid bells to chime in the vote, and no hanging chads.

The antique technology, in turn, reflects an 18th century conception of what is properly local and what is necessarily national.

The US Constitution allows each state to devise its own balloting systems. But most states have abdicated their responsibility and allowed a crazy quilt of local systems run by a combination of well-meaning volunteers, political hacks, and inept appointees capable of inventing butterfly ballots and worse.

You could register in several states and nobody would be the wiser. In my town, Brookline, they don't even ask you for an ID. I could have put on a tighter suit and voted as Michael Dukakis.

Compare the way we vote with any commercial transaction. Before you walk out of the store with a product, a computer rings up the sale and you get a receipt. This, in turn, lets you instantly verify that the transaction accurately recorded the price and product you intended.

In a computerized age, a balloting system could use a screen and printout to give the voter instant verification. (''Did you really mean Pat Buchanan?'') As backup protection against hacking, the system could produce dual hard copies of receipts, one for the proper authorities and one for the voter.

For starters, we need a national commission on uniform balloting standards. The states might technically retain the constitutional authority not to comply, but they could be given big incentives to join up.

The Wall Street Journal, in one of its recent screeds, argued that the horse-and-buggy voting technology persists because voting is part of (boo, hiss) the government, which, of course, is incompetent.

But this view has it backwards. It is the archaic ideology hawked by the Journal - starve government, preserve states' rights - that keeps us from having a modern and uniform voting system.

Which brings me to Question 2:

How could so much of the media have gotten so many aspects of the 2000 election so utterly wrong?

I don't just mean miscalling Florida twice. The aftermath was even worse. The networks and most print analysts convinced themselves that Al Gore had lost, that he was a sore loser, that the public was panicking, that a perilous interregnum was at hand, that court involvement would mean a constitutional crisis, and that an instant resolution was necessary for the good of the Republic.

But each of those conceits was proven overheated and wrong. An instant concession would have been good for the Republicans, not the Republic. It may well have been Bush who actually lost, and inquiring minds want to know.

The voters turn out to be more mature than the media.

They would rather get it right than get it quick. Far from panicking, the voters are getting a fascinating civics lesson. Anyone who thinks this is just O.J. all over again is a vidiot, so media-besotted as to be unable to distinguish spectacle from substance.

When I was studying political science, we were taught, as scripture, that although congressional districts had wildly divergent populations in apparent violation of one person-one vote, nonetheless Courts Never Get Involved With Apportionment.

A few years later the Supreme Court calmly ruled that congressional districts had to have substantially equal populations, thereby enriching our democracy. No crisis ensued.

A few years after that, the high court spared us deeper constitutional calamity by ruling, 9-0, that Nixon had to turn over the Watergate tapes.

Soon enough, the courts will determine who won Florida. In the meantime, we have a chief executive until Jan. 20.

The next president will earn a mandate, or not. The Republic will endure. And maybe, after reflection and penance, the press can begin helping us to think hard about a more reliable system for exercising our democracy, instead of continuing to chase that white van.

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