TCS Daily

Let's Hold A Contest For Truly Honest Elections

By James Pinkerton - January 15, 2001 12:00 AM

Three outside-the-beltway firms - Dell, Unisys, and Microsoft - have announced plans to create a primary-to-post election system that will count votes accurately, provide real results quickly and curtail fraud in the process. Once again, capitalists are poised to rescue politicians from their own incompetence.

Failure to provide a competent count besmirched the outcome of the Bush-Gore presidential contest. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is suing the state of Florida, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, et al., seeking to force a change in Sunshine State ballot procedures. The NAACP and its allies seem more interested in trying to score points against George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, but the case highlights the ongoing fight over the inadequacy of Florida`s paper ballot, whose hanging, pregnant and dimpled chad - the pieces that people supposedly punched out to cast their votes - befuddled the country and vote-counters in the last election.

Florida is not alone in using punch cards, and other states have other election handicaps. College students are suspected of having voted twice - once in their home states and then again in the states at which their schools are located. Voter rolls are often poorly pruned, either denying legitimate voters their right to cast ballots or allowing felons or even the dead to vote. Nationwide, anywhere from 1 percent to 5 percent of votes may be miscast, miscounted or merely missed.

The integrated voting system that Unisys with its partners hope to create - called the e-@ction Election Solutions portfolio - would start at registration and conclude at tabulation. It would build on the electronic voting systems Unisys already has established in Brazil, Costa Rica and Rome, with features including touchpad voting and real-time reporting of results. Unisys cautions a new system, though, won't amount to a giant leap to Internet voting, which many election officials view as too open to fraud.

Still, a better, more accurate and honest voting system promises a huge pay off. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., for example, has voted to find up to $250 million in matching money for states to modernize their balloting systems. Unisys itself sees a multi-billion dollar market for such systems worldwide. Such money has Compaq and Cisco seeking to create systems, as well as IBM, which was the only high-tech company previously involved, and that with the disastrous chad. In addition, the presidents of MIT and Cal Tech have announced a joint research program to address balloting questions at their tech-savvy schools.

But why should finding answers to such a high-profile public problem rest with just high-tech and higher education giants? Why doesn't the new president try to draw on the inventiveness and entrepreneurial talent of all Americans? How can he connect himself to the potential political windfall that Cisco, Dell, and Microsoft have put before him? The "how" is actually fairly simple, and would not require Bush or his people to get bogged down in technological debates that. Instead, Bush could rise above the issue, overseeing the resolution of the vote-error problem in the way that only presidents can. He could hold a nationwide contest.

A contest? It's worked before. That's what the British government did in 1714, when it needed a way to solve the crisis in navigational technique that was costing that island nation huge losses at sea. All this, of course, was ably chronicled in Dava Sobel`s 1995 best-seller, "Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time." After 40 years of working on the problem, one John Harrison finally claimed the prize; British ocean-going supremacy was further strengthened.

Throughout history, prizes have often been used to summon up the best and the brightest. Charles Lindbergh claimed the Orteig Prize, $25,000, in 1927 after he flew solo from New York to Paris. And the Nobel Prizes, of course, are quite an incentive to excellence in a variety of fields.

If Bush were to announce a "Longitude"-like contest, complete with a substantial purse for the winner, he could capture the imagination of every inventor, tinkerer, and civics-class teacher in the country. Indeed, a variety of prize categories could be opened up, for various aspects of the problem, from verification to standardization. For fun, the prizes could be further subdivided by age, so that grade school and high school competitors would be allowed to compete separately.

Pulling together judges from all walks of distinction, the competition could be closed in, say, two years; the culmination could be a ceremony that would make Americans feel that the Florida fiasco had not been in vain. It could reinvigorate the nation in both the election process and Bush's presidency.

And a contest that produced real election reform - defined as making sure that only living, non-felonious citizens get to vote - would hold hazards for Democrats as much as Republicans. Are the Democrats really interested in a total fix of elections? After all, the ultimate solution to ballot-counting would surely involve a greater infusion of technology, so that the voting experience would be more akin, perhaps, to going to an ATM machine or-having an ATM in one`s home. But to make such a system work, greater voter verification would be needed. And that`s where the Democrats might start to lose interest. Indeed, one lesson that needs to be taught in the wake of Florida is just how easy it is to vote, and maybe vote again, in many parts of the country. If elections were held to the same high standard of verification as, say, e-commerce, the Democratic vote might drop. Does the Democrats` commitment to clean elections extend that far? Bush could press them for the answer, even as he wraps himself in the robe of reform, aided by the most progressive force in American society, which is free-market capitalism.

So Bush needs to ascend to the bully pulpit to address the election issue. He should do what only presidents can do: engage the attention, and the goodwill, of all fair-minded Americans. He can make the argument that the Florida Fiasco was just one of many instances of election-procedure failure across the country last year, and that those mistakes are likely to be repeated every year, until something dramatic is done to fix the overall problem of incompetent and antiquated balloting.

To end the war of the 2000 election, the nation needs to start looking ahead, not back. Unisys, Microsoft and Dell are doing that. Bush can point the country in that direction, too.

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