02 November 2010

Nostalgia and Utopia at the Polls

Maybe it's just me, but there's a cheapness to voting, a sense of diminished grandeur, now that New York State has replaced the good old voting machines with paper ballots and computerized scanners. The dingus that reads your inking of circles may well be more expensive than the old lever machines, but everything else about the new process has a hard-times feeling of retrenchment to it that may well suit the national mood. Once you're recognized and sign in, an election worker gives you your paper ballot inside a folder and directs you to what passes now for a voting booth. This stall has the same basic relation to the old curtained booth as today's few remaining public pay phones have with Clark Kent's archetypal phone booth. There was something inimitable to the voting-booth experience as you yanked the lever to close the curtains; it was like nothing else you did during the year, while the filling in of ovals now is all-too reminiscent of standardized tests in school, and the overall experience is more reminiscent of completing an application for services than of exercising one's sovereign franchise. The only real benefit I saw in the new experience was the certain knowledge from the scanner's screen that I was the 47th person to vote at my polling place this morning.

My nostalgia for the old voting machines, which have been replaced mainly to enrich the scanner manufacturers, is tempered by my reservations about any ballot format that limits your choice of candidates. Seven candidates for governor appear on this year's paper ballot, but five of them had to cross an arbitrary petition threshold in order to be recognized as even theoretical equals to the major-party candidates. Any official ballot, despite its mandate to list all candidates, must limit the number of viable candidates for space reasons, consigning those who don't meet the petition quota to the quasi-anonymity of write-in status. The new system returns us to something like an earlier system of paper ballots, but because they're official ballots and have similar space limitations, there remains an imperative to limit the number of candidates by setting a threshold of viability. At an earlier period of history people could make up their own ballots, simply listing the candidates of their choice, or political parties could print their own straight-ticket ballots for distribution to the faithful. It may have been thought more fair or objective to make the official ballot a list of all candidates, but the maximum range of electoral choices requires a liberation of voters from the tyranny of space restrictions, while playing fields might be levelled somewhat in voters' minds if they didn't always seen Democrats and Republicans on the top lines of ballots. While ballots and lines might be defended as necessary to inform voters of choices they might not know about otherwise, we ought to work toward a time when voice-recognition software would enable people to speak (while accommodating the handicapped) the names of candidates without identifying them with parties or requiring them to jump petition hurdles beforehand.

How did I vote? I see no reason to conceal that I voted straight Green wherever possible, with the exception of the Libertarian candidate for Attorney General, since that strikes me as a good match of job and ideology. Since there was no independent challenger to Paul Tonko, my incumbent Democratic representative, I voted for him. Reflexive hostility to incumbents is no excuse for voting Republican. Tonko will probably be the only person I voted for who wins tonight, unless an upset is in the offing. Whether any of my selections wins is a secondary consideration, however, since my first duty to my fellow citizens is to vote according to my own conscience. This small gesture of publicizing my choices may do more than the votes themselves if it inspires others to vote independently, today or next time.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

You have to hope they've learned something, what with the use of scanners, from the debacle in Florida that helped W to the White House. No dangling Chads need apply.