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Jewish World Review Nov. 7, 2000 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Consumer Reports

Vote naked! Cool idea, but is it progress? -- TODAY, under the watchful eyes of three grandmotherly poll workers, I will cast my ballot.

This will be the seventh time I have voted for president. Normally I screen my choices to avoid the responsibility of voting for anyone who might win, but this system is not foolproof. My presidential win-loss record is 3-3.

I also have voted in all kinds of primaries, charter revisions and bond issues. I have dutifully filled in the circle next to my considered choice for Soil and Water Conservation District commissioner. I have gone over the pros and cons of annexing new neighborhoods into my town. I have gone on record in support of fluoridation despite scary arguments against it.

I calculate this civic duty averages to a twice-a-year commitment. That would make this election my 50th.

Going through the motions of signing in and saying "hey" to the poll workers seems like a link to all those past electoral moments. And it has never taken more than 10 minutes.

So why do so many people find this unendurable? Less than half of eligible voters are expected to cast ballots today. And many of those who do vote will do so only by absentee. Showing up is too hard.

Absentee voters tell me they save time by avoiding the folding table at the polling place. And maybe they do.

Still, weighing the time I've spent voting 50 times against the time I've spent getting Windows installed and working on my home computers, I'd estimate Microsoft has taken far more of my time than the chore of advancing the cause of democracy in America. Washing my car has taken more time than advancing the cause of democracy in America.

But this is a minority view. The increasing popularity of absentee ballots, the expected lack of voter turnout in the coming election and the success of Oregon in moving to a vote-by-mail system, make it likely that my days of strolling into a church social hall are numbered. Voting by mail and even e-mail are the trend.

Oregon is celebrated for opting in 1998 to move to a vote-by-mail system. There are no polling places there this year. Not one folding table. Not one high school gym opening up to the public. Just mailboxes.

This and other vote-at-home schemes probably will be the norm by the 2004 elections. I don't view this as a bad thing, but I don't think it will boost turnout.

People fail to vote because they are turned off. Not because voting is any more difficult than dropping off film for processing.

The fact that you will be able to vote naked, or while talking on the phone, or listening to the radio, drinking coffee and downloading your e-mail is probably not going to improve American civic life. It's cool that it can be done. But it's not civic progress.

And there may even be a hard-to-define downside. That is: We get a little better idea of the world around us when we rub against one another and see what things are like beyond our driveway. It's easier to vote against school bonds when you don't need to walk into a run-down school gym to do so. It's easier to believe negative campaign ads when you can avoid any contact with a candidate's supporters. It's easier to vote against anything when you don't need to stand in line with the folks affected.

It is possible that when our technology and voting arrangements are perfected so that voting is effortless, we won't take the task seriously? And what good is painless voting when it's done to make painful political choices between the products of a corrupt campaign-finance system?

Oops, it looks like we ingeniously solved the wrong problem. I think most people wouldn't lines at the polls if they felt any better about the choices at the line's end. Unfortunately there's no software that can change that.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

11/02/00: Semi-whistle while you para-work
10/27/00: Decided by the undecided


© 2000, M. R. Lane