Monday, November 12, 2012

Compare and contrast...

Last Tuesday, the USA held its 2012 General Election. This was my first chance to vote in one, having been a US citizen for a little less than a year. It's instructive to compare it to the British elections I used to vote in.

The major difference one notices is the ballots. Each state does things differently; some have you use a pen to fill in multiple-choice ovals, some have punched cards (the source of the infamous hanging chad problems Florida had in 2000), some require you to do it by mail (Oregon is the example of that), and some have touch-screen machines where you try to vote for Barack Obama and the machine votes for Mitt Romney (as someone got video proof of, this year). Part of the trouble is the fact that everything in the US electoral system is built around a 2-year voting cycle. Elections are every two years, in November, and it takes a truly tremendous upheaval to allow any election outside of that. So every single issue that gets put to the voters happens within that cycle, and since there are a lot of issues, there are lots of things that need a vote.

In the UK, the rare occasions when national elections and local elections coincide result in you getting two slips of paper when you go to vote; one for the national election candidates, and one for the local. You're expected to be clever enough to figure out which of the two clearly marked boxes each goes in. In California, it's different; you get one ballot (although this year, it was actually two double-sided cards, each over a foot long; we had a LOT to vote about). The first card covered President, Senator (one of our two was up for re-election this year; Senators have a six-year term of office, and are divided into three classes so that any given state will be voting on one of its two in two out of three elections), Representative (remembering that although the usual term is Congressman, that could just as easily apply to a Senator since the Senate is part of congress), city council, School Board, Sanitary Board (really? We have to vote on who is in charge of looking after our drains?) and two local measures (this time, asking for property tax increases to a) fund our local community college a bit more and b) try to prevent our fire services from being cut even more than they already are, at less than half the guideline amount, and in a state with a distinct tendency to catch fire), while the second card covered the numerous statewide referenda on such things as sales tax increases, potential repeal of the death penalty, and sundry attempts to wreck things.

You see now why they make it a colour-the-oval thing rather than a tick-the-box thing. That makes it machine-readable, and with the sheer number of things I have to vote for (were this to be done under a British-style system, I'd have had to put almost twenty little slips into the same number of different boxes, and it would be hard enough to merely find that many different colours of paper, never mind the trouble anyone colourblind would have trying to tell them apart) machine counting is inevitable.

I've no real objection to machine counting per se. There is always a way to compare the necessary machines to how they should count, since there are the pieces of card they were counting. It may take a while, but you can have people go through and compare the output to its expected values. Where I get unwilling is the idea of entirely machine-moderated voting. As the infamous video of one machine repeatedly highlighting Romney as a finger repeatedly selects Obama shows, subtle problems abound. I have programmed computers; I know just how easy it is to make mistakes, and how much of a problem those can be even if you assume no malicious intent. When the companies making the voting machines have strong ties with only one of the major parties, a distinct rodential whiff begins to arise.

So you see, it's a distinctly more technological process, voting in America, and that's how Eastern states (which still use the technology, despite being FAR smaller) are perfectly able to have their results before the polls even close out here in the West. It's an impressive achievement, working out who's going to be President on the very night of the vote.

1 comment:

  1. UK General Elections and Local Elections always coincide - if one of your ward councillors (district council level) isn't up for election, you'll be voting for a county councillor. Different in unitary authorities, but they do still generally coincide. This is me speaking as a (former) professional - I worked in local government for over a decade!


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