Paper, Pens, and a See-Through Ballot Box

I voted Tuesday. I have almost always voted if I get the chance.

Not out of any sense of “civic duty,” though I will admit that plays some role. No, I usually vote because I find it, well, fun. It’s a kind of aesthetic exercise of sorts for me, personal performance art. I have always liked the feel of voting. I can’t explain it. Not even to myself.

It doesn’t matter where I vote, it’s always felt the same. I grew up in Southern California, and got used to punch cards and great big mailers from the Secretary of State outlining the pros and cons and so forth of ballot initiatives and candidates. Just thought every state did it like that. I was shocked to discover that almost no other states do. Not sure if that’s good or bad.

The first election I ever voted in was a small city election, and I was maybe the youngest person to show up that day, to wander into the voting booth with the punch card and the stylus and have at it. My first big elections were the mid-year primaries and the general election of 1986. I remember distinctly sitting in an Army barracks in Panama, trying to figure out how to punch the card with a dull pencil without ruining it.

As I recall, I managed.

I remember voting in Ohio in the fall of 1992. That memory is clear because it was the first time I’d ever seen a voting machine, and it looked for all the world like a great, steam-powered cast-iron relic of another age, something legions of young women would pass by on roller skates as they replaced burnt-out tubes, repatched cables and oiled with small squirt tins. It involved pressing a lot buttons, flipping a few switches and then pulling a giant lever – steam and bells and buzzers and a violent shaking – and I recall thinking “California’s cute little punch cards are way cooler and much more efficient than this monstrosity.”

The only US election I missed out on was the 2000 primaries. I was reporting on agriculture and trade policy for BridgeNews, a now-defunct commodities wire service, and did not have time that morning to vote. I’d do it that afternoon, I told myself.

However, I couldn’t. I got stuck at the US Department of Agriculture waiting around to talk to a delegation from Cofco, the Chinese state grain importer, which was visiting the U.S. to settle a dispute over U.S. wheat that was blocking sales to China. I waited. And waited. And waited. And when the delegation finally emerged from their consultations, they said very little. Certainly nothing worth having slouched around USDA for more than an hour for.

But I didn’t get home until after the polls in Virginia closed. Someday, if I ever meet Alan Keyes, I intend to tell him that I was going to vote for him in 2000, but the Chinese government wouldn’t let me.

I’ve also covered a few elections as reporter – here in the U.S. and abroad. When I covered the 1996 general elections in northern Utah, I discovered that the local GOP had a much better spread and was very generous with the victuals while the local Democrats in general served much better food. The Democrats kept their rather fragile spirits up knowing at least they’d the presidency, while the Republicans griped about Dole but were rather happy otherwise.

The first election I covered as a reporter was in Dubai in 1995, when I watched the several-hundred–strong French expatriate community of Dubai, Sharjah and the northern Emirates vote for president. The French, for better or worse, do not have this fetish with technology that we have, and do not have this irrepressible need to put their faith in increasingly complex systems that can fail in unique, amazing and utterly astounding ways.

No, in 1995, the French kept it simple: in the first round, voters got a slip of paper with the names of all the candidates on it and a box next to each name. They marked the box with a big black pen. And then folded the ballot and stuffed it in a giant, Plexiglas ballot box in the middle of the room.

More than one name checked on the paper meant a spoilt ballot, a vote that didn’t count. Same for a blank piece of paper. None of this trying to discern intent from looking at chads. Or parsing obscure clauses of computer code. None of this trying to discern intent. If a ballot was void, well, the election workers assumed that the voter intended it to be that way. And why not? You would think that citizenship – the right to participate in political life – means being capable enough to fill out a ballot.

Unless, of course, the designers of that ballot are too clever by half, and create something only clever engineers and election officials are able to use effectively.

When the French had their runoff, between Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin, it was the same thing – paper, black felt pens, a see-through ballot box. If seemed infinitely more civilized than giant, steam-belching machines or annoying little punch cards.

And I remember thinking: This beats machines and punch cards hands down. No contest.

Both times, for the first round and the run-off, the French consul general in Dubai, a delightful gentleman of Indian extraction, gave me the results over the phone the same day. Sure, it didn’t take that long to tally fewer than a thousand paper votes, given how many consulate officials were loitering around supervising the polls. But still, it is simply not that hard, if the commitment is there, to use the basics – paper and pen.

I don’t know how the French vote now. I suspect European Union voting is as technologically obsessed as ours is, as overly complex and unfriendly. And that’s too bad.

Voting in the Commonwealth of Virginia was a little complicated Tuesday. One line to certify your identity and address, another line to get a computer code, and then finally the “voting machines,” a less-than-user friendly computer who’s worst feature was an almost completely uncontrollable “wheel o’ voting fun.” Virginia’s ballot is relatively short. This wheel would be nearly impossible to use in a state with a long ballot and a zillion things to vote for, like California. I’m fairly computer savvy, and I found it annoying. My wife Jennifer, who is dyslexic, found it nearly impossible to use.

Without the tactile feel of an actual ballot, of something to punch or mark, voting is no longer much fun. It feels more like walking up to an ATM and demanding cash rather than something “special.” And that saddens me a little.

Maybe enough to give it up in the future.

November 3, 2004

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.