Monday, November 13, 2000

Modernizing The Electoral Process

All this hoopla over the presidential vote recount has focused on the people, with complaints like, “How come Floridians can fill out 10 bingo cards at once, but they can’t punch holes in a simple butterfly ballot?”

The problem doesn’t lie so much in the people. It’s in the system. Here we are in the year 2000, the most technologically advanced civilization in history, and the punch card is the way we still have to vote?

As always, I’m here with a solution. Stay with me on this, because I’m going to suggest we make a leap forward and use a little-known device called “The Computer.”

In a world where you can order an entire custom dining room set online and have it delivered to your house two days later, shouldn’t we have moved the how-we-vote bar a little bit higher?

Simplifying the process involves changing two things.

First, we shouldn’t have to all gather at the same polling place in our own community to cast our votes. You should be able to vote at any public election kiosk anywhere in your state. That way you don’t have to rush home from work or a business trip to try to beat the closing time (cuts down on absentee ballots, too!).

How will the machine know where you live and what district your vote counts in? In many states (e.g. Missouri), our driver’s license has a metallic strip on the back -- just like on credit cards -- but it seems to serve no purpose. Under my plan, you swipe your license in the kiosk reader, and it instantly knows where you live and what you should vote on. Vote anywhere, anytime, and it all gets applied to the proper precinct.

This has the wonderful side effect of completely screwing up the exit polls, although they seem to have done that themselves very nicely.

It should also cut down on waiting time at the polling places. We live in a microwave world where we want everything faster (I have seen a guy stand in front of the microwave complaining that it was taking a full minute to heat up his cup of coffee!), so we have to design a way to speed up the voting process. No one should have to spend a half-hour in line just to vote. We have better things to do with our time, like spending all night camped outside Toys R Us waiting for the new Sony PlayStation 2 to go on sale in the morning!

The other half of the upgrade involves replacing the punch card ballot with a computer touch screen. For each elective office, you simply touch the screen where your candidate’s name is. Then you push the “next” option, and it keeps taking you through all the categories of aspiring office holders, propositions, bond issues, etc. When you complete the last item, the screen shows a summary of who and what you have voted for and asks, “Is this correct?” If you push Yes, your vote is tabulated and you’re on your way. If not, try again. There’s no muss, no fuss, no wasted paper (can you recycle electoral punch cards?).

Best of all, there is absolutely no chad.

I didn’t know until this week that “chad” is the name for the paper speck that you punch out of the card. Part of the controversy over the Florida ballots being counted by hand is that the election judges have to consider what happens when the hole is punched, but the chad is still attached by a corner or two. They use phrases like “hanging chad,” “dimpled chad,” and “swinging chad."

The word “chad” hasn’t been mentioned in this many news reports since Rob Lowe's brother was arrested in the same week that Madeline Albright’s plane refueled in a small African nation near Libya.

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about my revolutionary electoral scheme:

Q: We can’t trust computers. What if some teenage hacker changes the software and Bill Gates becomes President?
A: We now live in a world where you can go to Sri Lanka and access your US bank account at an ATM over a secure line and withdraw money in an instant! I think we can develop a secure system for your vote. Incidentally, those machines that now count the punch cards ARE computers.

Q: Doesn’t that leave the door open to corruption? How do we know the vote count is true?
A: The experience of the last week should be proof enough that we probably never knew that, in any election.

Q: What if the results are so close someone demands a recount?
A: Each kiosk retains its own statistics internally as well as feeding them down the secure network, backing itself up after each ballot is completed. It also makes anonymous bids on Mark McGwire's rookie card on E-Bay in the background.

Q: How do we pay for all this technology? Do we just buy the equipment from DiscountKiosks.com?
A: Corporations pay huge fees for the naming rights to every stadium and arena in the country. The biggies would gladly pick up the costs if their logo could appear on the screen between voters. On the days when we’re not having an election, you would use the same kiosks to order tickets to your favorite major motion picture!

Q: Come on, Paul. Elections are supposed to be about the people’s choice, not some cheap sponsorship opportunity for some company.
A: You’re right. The only proper place for commercial messages is on The Paul Harris Show and the banner ads on HarrisOnline.com. Sorry about the blatant plugs, but I’m still laughing about that whole "people’s choice" remark. Good one!

Q: If people are having trouble with punch cards, how the hell are they going to figure out your touch-screen deal?
A: I’m not suggesting you have to do something complex like program your VCR in order to vote. All you have to do is apply pressure with your finger to a screen. Just like you do now when a contestant on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” uses up all their lifelines on the $200 question. Besides, we’ll always have a certain percentage of the population -- let’s say it’s 10% -- who can’t figure out how to vote correctly, no matter what method we use. So why not upgrade it for the other 90% of us? For the one out of ten who have trouble with both punch cards and touch screens, let them go to a simple voice vote. At noon on election day, they open their windows and scream their candidate’s name. Loudest response wins.

Q: What about people who, for whatever reason, can’t open their windows? Doesn’t your system discriminate against the infirm, not to mention people who work in high-rise office buildings?
A: I’ll let my Executive Election Assistant answer that one. Chad?