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Allison Fine Headshot

Our 8-Track Tape Voting System

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Cable news stations like to count. They cover important and inane events 24/7, they tell me how many days are left in the year (so I can plan my New Year's activities, I guess) and how many days Baby Caylee has been missing. And lately they've been telling me exactly how many days are left to Election Day. Seventy days then sixty-five and now fifty-six. But as experts (OK, me here and here!) and the New York Times reports tell us, ongoing voting problems has helped to spur the explosion of early voting in states across the country.

In twenty-three states early voting starts in mid-October. For instance, in Nevada, a key battleground state in this election, early voting starts on October 18th and runs through October 31st. In 2006, more than half of Nevada voters cast their ballots early by mail or in person at early voting sites. Another twenty-six states (some of them, like Tennessee, overlap with the early voting states) encourage voters to cast absentee ballots early. And Oregon conducts their elections entirely by mail, a process that starts well before Election Day.

From a voters' perspective it makes perfect sense to vote early to avoid the increasingly long lines and chaos of Election Day. And it is particularly popular among Yellow Dog voters. Yellow Dog Democrats or Republicans ("I'd vote for a Yellow Dog over that crummy Republican!") are voters for whom party affiliations trumps all and whose voting choices are made early

But, there's a perfect storm brewing here.

It is the intersection of early voting and late nominations of little-known candidates like Sarah Palin. It is very possible that millions of Americans will vote for Palin and then regret it when the other moose hoof drops. The frustrating aspect of all of this is that early voting is increasingly popular with voters because after eight years and over $3 billion dollars our voting process and machinery is no more reliable than it was in Florida 2000. New optical scan machines replaced the digital screen machines that replaced the butterfly ballots and still votes are routinely cast and lost. Last week in a Palm Beach County, Florida (why is it always Florida!) primary election seventeen votes separated the first and second place candidates for judge immediately after the polls were closed -- then 3,478 separated them after the first recount! These Sequoia optical scan voting machines are the same ones that were decertified by the Secretary of State of California last year for being too unreliable to count ballots.

The new voting machinery will ultimately be judged by history as the 8-track tape era of voting technology. These failures are amplified by our life in the Connected Age that creates loud echo chambers of voting woes captured instantly on blogs and YouTube. And, yet, the same venerable New York Times endorsed optical scanning machines last year as the best bet for safe and fair elections and were horrified, HORRIFIED, that Florida wants to try online voting for overseas voters because of the possibility of hackers. This discounts the fact that as my colleagues at Demos repeatedly report there is no evidence of significant voter fraud in our elections, and that in my essay on the inevitability of online voting it is clear that online transactions can be made very safe from hackers as evidenced by the millions of Americans who bank and buy online everyday.

We are barreling towards yet another election riddled with voting problems. We will look up in surprise and horror on the evening of November 4th to find that thousands, maybe even millions, of voters in key states like Nevada, Colorado and, of course, Florida, either gave up their right to vote because they couldn't take any more time from work and family to wait to vote (and shouldn't there be a rule that you if you stand in line to vote for an hour you can just hand write in a ballot. And not a provisional ballot that may or may not be counted, but a real one that has to be counted) or cast a vote supervised by the old and frail workers or very young and under-trained high school poll workers that may or may not be counted properly.
It is a Morton's Fork between bad and worse when we should be capitalizing on the enthusiasm that voters are showing for participating in this election and using it as a springboard for longer-term engagements with their local governments. It's hurricane season; let's just hope that this one passes by.