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Can New Media's Obsessiveness Redeem the Vote?

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With the world's attention understandably focused on the epic electoral battle between Obama and McCain, a development central to what will happen on November 4th has flown under the radar. Electronic voting machines that lack paper trails are, as NPR recently reported, being mothballed across the U.S.:

Officials in many states are concerned about the reliability of electronic voting and are now moving toward systems that can provide a voter-verified paper trail. Voting machines that are only a few years old are being sold for scrap or auctioned on eBay.

That's downright remarkable. It's not overstating it to say that, not long ago, paperless electronic voting was seen as the inevitable future of American elections. An often lonely opposition pushed back against that tide. At the forefront: blogging academics like Johns Hopkins's Avi Rubin and Princeton's Ed Felten and passionate activists Bev Harris of Black Box Voting and Brad of Brad Friedman of Brad Blog. Despite the political and financial clout of manufacturers like Diebold (now rebranded Premier Election Systems) and ES&S, they pressed on. From the sidelines, their campaign often seemed quixotic. But we're watching history bend their way.

What's the lesson? I'll suggest a possible one.

Elections in the U.S. involve countless moving parts and (as a job largely left to each individual state) so many different players. Improving the way we vote demands sustained, focused attention -- not exactly the strong suit of the American press. And let's be honest with ourselves, it's not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of we the people. But it's probably the distinguishing characteristic of the sort of bloggers, online activists, and independent journalists who pushed back on electronic voting; as Arianna Huffington has cleverly diagnosed, new media is afflicted with "obsessive compulsive disorder." Dogged attention is the name of the new media game.

And they're are enough angles to the election story to interest almost anyone.

For process wonks, there's moving voting day from Tuesday to a more convenient day of the week. When it comes to injustice, there are the "overlooked Americans": soldiers and other overseas Americans voting still have to hop over hurdles to cast their vote. (While I'm on this point, it's inconceivable to me that someone serving in Iraq or Afghanistan should have anything less than a ballot served to them on a silver platter that's then carried directly to the ballot box in the beak of a bald eagle.) For the civil justice-minded, how the once-incarcerated vote begs for reform. Local might dig into the the prohibitive lengths of polling-place wait lines, the unequal distribution of voting materials, the misleading fliers and phone calls that still seem to pop up every each election day...the list continues.

We've seen the rise of participatory democracy in recent years. A greater diversity of voices is being heard. Huge sums of money are being raised online, much of it from first-time donors. But when it comes to election day, we toss our ballots into a black hole, cross our fingers, and walk away. It doesn't have to be that way.