Sunday, February 4, 2007

The power of the pencil (or Malcolm reflects on the nature of democracy)

Brit readers start here: Charlie Crist (now, there's name with promise) is the newly-elected (and 44th) Governor of Florida. He succeeded Jeb Bush, who had served two four-year terms and was thereby disqualified from standing again. Bush and Crist are both Republicans: but that seems to be where the similarity ends.

As Malcolm has whinged previously, the Florida penchant for electronic voting gave the Great American People consistent belly-laughs through the end of 2000 (as well as determining the Presidency). Equally consistently, as in the Florida 13th in 2006, it has provided electoral bonuses for Republican candidates. But no "paper trail". And one of the loudest, longest critics has been Democratic congressman Robert Wexler. And now Wexler and Crist have concurred: the one-arm electoral bandits will go; and it's back to the greasy Chinagraph pencil. Here's the Miami Herald's Fred Grimm, "curled up in the corner, bored into a mindless stupor by all this damn niceness":

The new populist Republican governor and the crusading Democrat congressman stood on the stage together and heaped so many compliments on one another, it was like listening to excerpts of Academy Award acceptance speeches. And then they agreed to get rid of those snazzy but untrustworthy touch-screen voting machines.

It was a great day for democracy. But where's the fun in that?

One month into the Charlie Crist administration and I was already missing the recalcitrant Jeb Bush. I missed the head-knocking drama...

Jeb, the never-admit-a-mistake governor, would have sooner bitten off a chunk of U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler's ear than suggest that maybe those high-tech gadgets the guv had championed were wormy, vote-devouring mistakes; that the nice liberal Democrat congressman was right after all.

Malcolm was first made aware of this welcome development by the estimable The New York Times had a longer, more staid version, taking the wider view:
If as expected the Florida Legislature approves the $32.5 million cost of the change, it would be the nation’s biggest repudiation yet of touch-screen voting, which was widely embraced after the 2000 recount as a state-of-the-art means of restoring confidence that every vote would count.

Several counties around the country, including Cuyahoga in Ohio and Sarasota in Florida, are moving toward exchanging touch-screen machines for ones that provide a paper trail. But Florida could become the first state that invested heavily in the recent rush to touch screens to reject them so sweepingly.

“Florida is like a synonym for election problems; it’s the Bermuda Triangle of elections,” said Warren Stewart, policy director of VoteTrust USA, a nonprofit group that says optical scanners are more reliable than touch screens. “For Florida to be clearly contemplating moving away from touch screens to the greatest extent possible is truly significant.”

Other states that rushed to buy the touch-screen machines are also abandoning them. Earlier this week, the Virginia Senate passed a bill that would phase out the machines as they wore out, and replace them with optical scanners. The Maryland legislature also seems determined to order a switch from the paperless touch screens, though it is not clear yet if it will require the use of optical scanners or just allow paper printers to be added to the touch screens.

On Monday, Representative Rush D. Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, plans to introduce a bill in Congress that would require all voting machines nationwide to produce paper records through which voters can verify that their ballots were recorded correctly. A majority of House members have endorsed the proposal, and the changes have strong support among Senate Democrats.
And—notice Malcolm's reticence—no mention of Katharine Harris (last spotted passing out business cards at the State of the Union address). Except a juicy "might-have-been" from The Nation, of March 2006, previously missed by Malcolm :
The betting is that Harris will withdraw [from the Senate race she later, disastrously, lost] -- with Republicans hoping against hope that she can still be replaced by a big-name candidate such as Governor Bush or Representative Mark Foley.
So, that's it then. It's about making elections reliable, trustworthy and "homely". Malcolm believes the British pencil-on-a-short-string is all of that. It is an essential part of our electoral mystique.

Malcolm's doppelgänger considers that one mark of his life was standing as a candidate for election. He did it, he reckons, up to a score of times over the years, and was elected just four times.

What's the attraction, the buzz, the pay-off?

1. At first puff, he admits, it is the ego-factor. That's your name on that poster, that leaflet, that press statement. You've earned it: you served the cause and gave your time: you deserve it. It's natural to bask in a moment of glory.

Then you realise, it's not you. It's merely a construct. And the more you talk to and are reported in the media (even the local press), the more alienated you feel from that persona. So, you become the construct, develop it, go with the flow, exploit it, manipulate it, but (if you have conscience and any wit) don't believe it. Above all, you are a face and a name for the principles you choose to represent.

And, of course, you did have a creed, a personal ideology and set of principles already, didn't you? Because now, suddenly, you are expected to enunciate them. Only in the safest of seats will you get away with mouthing the platitudes that came from Central Office or Party Headquarters in the overnight emails and posts. And your most acute critics will be your support staff.

Which raises the next issue: you didn't and don't and shouldn't believe your own rhetoric, especially when it is written for you. Do you? Did you? You're not guilty of hypocrisy thereby, it's really commonsense. Harold Wilson (for whom Malcolm had and has a lot of time) would have deemed it "pragmatism". Rhetoric, by definition, is an abstract: you'll be required, if elected, to deal with real life, real problems, even real people with real griefs. So, it's back to that ideology and set of principles.

2. The chances are that you, as a candidate or as an elected representative will never be presented with a Big Issue, one of those decisions on which real fate hinges. You'll convince yourself that granting that application or casting that vote made a difference, but ... well. Here's Francis Williams (for whom, lamentably, no wikipedia link exists as yet):
For many years the British people were told by their rulers that it was no business of theirs to concern themselves with what were called rival ideologies. Yet on the September Sunday of 1939 when war was declared most of them felt instinctively, I believe, that rival ideologies had now a very great deal to do with them and that what they were engaged upon was a war between two conceptions of living, a war in which there could be no compromise because it was being fought not simply for the material possessions of men and women, but for something much more important—though less considered in the ordinary way of things—their souls. It was a belief held much more firmly, so far as one could judge, by the ordinary men and women with whom one talked than by many of those still in power at that time.
That's from the Introductory of Democracy's Last Battle (Faber, 1941)—and very much out of print.

So, the next message is: trust your public. Almost by definition they will be ahead of you. At the back of his mind, Malcolm hears a similar description of Russia in 1916: "The people were ahead of the Party, and the Party was ahead of the leadership." So your problem is: what is a genuine surge of public feeling, and what is froth inspired by yesterday's headlines in the Red Tops? Answer: if it was yesterday's headline, it was almost certainly wrong.

3. So are you, as a candidate or elected representative "important"? You will certainly be on the receiving end of deference. Many will cluster around you for approval. Officialdom will flatter you that you make the decisions (except, of course, all those decisions will be constrained by and defined by the advice of those officials). You are now into the territory of Yes, Minister (on which, by a series of roundabout insinuations, Malcolm feels he had a walk-on part). At this point, your ideology becomes all the more decisive.

4. If it's a close election (and for Malcolm's alter ego, twice, it was), you'll end up, with your agent, arguing the toss on a handful of ballots. Whether the intersection of the cross is this side or the other of the line. Why cannot "1,2,3" be accepted? Whether tick and cross on the same ballot indicates a preference. Don't bother: the Returning Officer will have seen it all before.

So it all starts, or ends, with the power of that stub of pencil, in a plywood booth, in a church hall, on a wet Thursday. Florida, welcome back to sanity. Graphite beats silicon any day.
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