The trials of voting

Sunday, May 28, 2006


By David Sanders


I asked the woman who was about to hand me a paper ballot if I could cast my votes on the fancy touch-screen voting machine set up against the wall. When I walked into the gymnasium on Tuesday, I noticed that the machine wasn't working properly. A blank screen and high-pitch sound were good indications something was wrong.


The very gracious poll worker was caught off guard by my request to use the computerized contraption. She laughed and said I was the first person who had asked to use the machine. Nonetheless, she didn't try to dissuade me.


Mine was not an unreasonable request. No one else was voting at the time and I had heard so much about these machines. I wanted to put the new voting methodology to the test.


She grabbed her operating instructions - a couple of yellow sheets of paper with tiny text on it. She touched the screen in hopes that it would illuminate, but it didn't. Then she began inserting a couple of cartridges into a slot in the side of the machine. The small square devices looked like the old Pac-Man and Defender game cartridges I used to have to jiggle to make my Atari work.


This continued for a few minutes, but nothing worked. She said she had gone to an in-service meeting on how to operate the machine. I felt bad; she seemed determined.


By this time, a small crowd of inquisitive poll workers had gathered around the machine. We were not getting anywhere. Being confident about my technological problem-solver skills, I decided to make a few suggestions. (I come in somewhere at the bottom - the very bottom - of the computer nerd scale. When I made the unfortunate leap from my Macintosh Powerbook to a Windows-based PC, I had to become somewhat adept at computer operations.)


Standing behind the machine while looking for the power source, I told the women that when my computer locks up at home, I usually unplug the darn thing and let it reboot. Relieved by the suggestion, one woman pulled the plug.


The annoying sound didn't subside. In fact, I don't think the machine lost power. It must have had an internal backup power source. I walked back to the front of the machine where this gentle soul was putting in the cartridges and taking them out. Still no luck; this was a fruitless process.


I touched the screen in hopes that this time something would happen. It came on! Progress.


A white background popped up with a message to verify our location. I pushed the correct button. Then the machine asked the operator to insert the cartridges, which contained the specific ballot information for my polling place.


We soon discovered that inserting the wrong cartridges at the wrong time would not allow the machine to boot up properly. We had to start and stop this process a few times.


After 15 or 20 minutes of poking, prodding and rebooting, the machine appeared to be ready. I was relieved, and the poll workers were relieved. This had been a team effort.


I quickly navigated through the electronic ballot. It was a cinch and it was worth all the trouble, assuming, of course, that my vote was actually counted.


I wasn't the only one to experience Election Day problems. Despite all the emphasis on election mechanics, Tuesday night came and went without all ballots being counted. Technology was supposed to streamline things.


It doesn't appear the state has gotten its act together. Secretary of State Charlie Daniels, the man in charge of overseeing Arkansas' elections, is seeking another term. As I see it, Tuesday's primaries were a vote of no confidence for him. Jim LaGrone, the Republican challenging Daniels, should be encouraged.


David Sanders writes twice weekly for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. His e-mail address is


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