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News: Voting in Spite of It All

Don't trust, and verify

By Ben L. Kaufman · November 8th, 2006 · News
  U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot was turned away at the polls for lack of proper ID; he had to go home for proper identification before being allowed to cast a ballot.
Jon Hughes/photopresse.com

U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot was turned away at the polls for lack of proper ID; he had to go home for proper identification before being allowed to cast a ballot.

In Jewish tradition, everyone's human nature includes the Yetzer HaTov and Yetzer HaRah, the inclination for good and the inclination for evil.

As this was written, my Yetzer HaRah was drawing me to the Hamilton County Board of Elections. I was looking for a meltdown but wanted to know whether most of us who cast absentee ballots voted for Democrats.

My suspicion was just the opposite, that thousands of God-fearing, Constitution-affirming conservative Ohio Republicans had become disgusted with elections overseen by Secretary of State and would-be governor Ken Blackwell.

For many of us, absentee ballots were votes of no confidence.

I'd asked for an absentee ballot twice by mail and once by phone. When none arrived and time was short, I voted at the Board of Elections.

All the while I wondered if the National Security Agency (NSA) should have been contracted to count ballots last night.

Oh, I know that NSA works for the White House, but NSA has the world's best computers, its CEO hadn't pledged publicly to help deliver Ohio to Bush in 2004 and NSA isn't beholden to Blackwell. Did I mention that Blackwell also ran the Bush 2004 campaign and Ohio is credited with returning Bush to the White House?

When News Editor Greg Flannery suggested putting my NSA fantasy on a CityBeat blog before the election, I demurred, lest some pajama-clad, scanner-attuned poster with no other apparent life take me seriously. Still, it might have been fun for NSA to take a break from warrantless eavesdropping on Americans to assure that every vote counted ...

and was counted accurately.

'Voting is the only way'
For all that, voting is too important to sink into cynicism. It's the best way, with all its problems, of warning elected and appointed officials of my anger. My serious doubts about the integrity of the system surfaced during the 2000 election, recounts and final, judicial fiasco in ways they hadn't since I first voted in 1960.

My unresolved skepticism is heightened by the 2004 election, in which Diebold CEO Walden W. O'Dell told like-minded wealthy donors, "I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." That's the same Diebold whose electronic voting machines are the focus of so much suspicion.

I admit to a Luddite suspicion of technology that I do not understand, but I've read and heard enough to wonder if bipartisan local boards of elections are competent to assure the honesty and accuracy of their new voting machines.

At least Hamilton County is using paper ballots tabulated by optical character readers, or scanners. That's better than any electronic touch-screen system with no paper trail. But we used scanners for years to set type at The Enquirer, and memories of their quirks and errors are enough to give me a quivering colon even today.

That's why I wanted to go the Board of Elections on Tuesday night to watch. For years I worked election night at The Enquirer, taking data called in by colleagues at county boards of elections for the next morning's pages of results. First reported numbers, always small, were absentee ballots. That, however, was a more innocent era, before the 2000 and 2004 elections, before Diebold, before Bush, before Blackwell.

Still, it was a punch-card system, adopted in no small part at the urging of the morning paper; the previous system was so slow that final vote counts usually appeared first in The Post, the competition and then, as now, an evening paper.

Now that punch-card system is Hamilton County history.

Election results were suspect long before Bush 2000 in Florida and Bush 2004 in Ohio. Remember how Cook County Democrats allegedly voted early, often and from every Chicago tombstone to assure John F. Kennedy's victory in 1960? Illinois was the Florida or Ohio of that year.

I have voted in every presidential election since then -- even, I believe, as absentee, in 1964 when I was overseas.

Voting is more than a right. I was raised to believe it was a duty, and I didn't understand why people didn't vote. My people couldn't vote in the Old Country; they didn't call the czar an autocrat for nothing. Voting here is an affirmation that we have become Americans with rights and obligations.

But that was Minnesota, not Ohio.

No one ever told me that I had a right to win; betting against my choices would have made you rich. But voting is the only way I can assure my right to vote again. None of the "one man, one vote, one time" so beloved of authoritarians elsewhere.

Triumph of hope
That sense of right and duty still is offended by partisan and/or racist efforts to suppress voter registration and/or the vote by direct intimidation and/or indirect bureaucratic means. In the same way, I cannot comprehend withholding machines from eager crowds of would-be voters, whether minority citizens or students on campuses. That, God help me, really is un-American and, in the Good Old Days, Republicans would have held hearings.

My enthusiasm for voting and all that it stands for -- that we, the people, not the president, are sovereign -- is reinforced by memory of the first national election in the British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia. It was becoming independent, black-ruled Zambia, and Zambians were choosing their government for the first time. I covered polling in remote Fort Jameson. The dignity and quiet pride of those novice voters remains with me. More than anything, their voter cards were symbols and proof of independence.

In the same way, I cannot shake images from the first nonracial election after the collapse of apartheid. South Africans of all races waited together at polling places in lines that seemingly snaked to the horizon.

Finally, closer to home, not voting or reversing my vote by computer shows contempt for the risks run by generations of Americans whose only -- and sometimes deadly -- sin was to encourage Southern blacks to vote.

So I vote. In my case, it is the triumph of duty and hope over experience. But if someone wants to steal my vote, I hope my absentee paper ballot makes the theft more difficult. ©



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