America, America

They looked at me like I was, well, just a bit crazy.

They were my students at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre — a bright and capable group who’d assembled for the first of five weekly seminars. The topic of the class is technology journalism.

But for more than a half hour at the beginning of last night’s session, the topic was American politics.

I was trying to help them understand the Electoral College system that has thrown the 2000 presidential election into such chaos. They found my explanations odd, but they wanted to understand.

I tried to explain. We apportion electoral votes based on a state’s total representation in Congress, both House and Senate, I said. And we give the popular-vote winner all of a state’s electoral votes — except in the two states where we don’t do that.

It’s a mess, I told them. They nodded in strong agreement.

America, America: Next Steps

So what do we do about this mess?

You’ll be hearing and reading a variety of remedies in coming days and months. Clearly we need to upgrade the system by, first of all, doing away with the Electoral College, an anachronism that has been shown conclusively to create all kinds of trouble with almost no advantages.

Bad design seems to have played a role with the ballot in Palm Beach County, Florida, that plainly confused a large number of people into voting for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore.

To understand how unnecessarily stupid this was — and why usability testing, a staple in some product-design circles, would have avoided this disaster — see software pioneer Dan Bricklin’s detailed explanation.

Another needed upgrade is in the physical voting machines. We should require all communities to install standardized machines that tabulate ballots into a database and are connected via networks to the office of the Secretary of State in each of the states, or the equivalent office overseeing voting. Then we’d have instant results when the polls closed, and we wouldn’t put ourselves through this kind of madness.

Expensive? Sure. But this is something we, the taxpayers, should pay for on a national basis. The voting franchise is too valuable to our lives to leave to 19th century technology.

We shouldn’t settle on a single kind of machine. Rather, to promote competition, we should create a standardized platform, if you will, that vendors could bid to provide to individual localities.

There’s another “solution” some in the tech community are touting — a rapid adoption of Internet voting. This is an absolutely terrible idea in the near term, and only marginally acceptable over the long term.

I’ll need a major amount of convincing that any online system could both provide the necessary security against fraud and simultaneously save the secret ballot, a cornerstone of democracy. I’ll need even more convincing that we can prevent the literal stealing of elections by hackers.

Besides, the act of voting — going to a polling place and casting a ballot — strikes me as a civic and personal good. I’m not wedded to that notion; the state of Oregon mailed ballots to its citizens this year, with good results. But holding the ballot in your hands as you make these awesome decisions has enormous meaning, at least to me.

Did you vote? I did.

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