No Backsies On Butterfly Ballots

The nation could have been spared a lot of whining and litigation, it seems, if only certain confused Palm Beach County supporters of Vice President Al Gore '69--supporters who voted for Pat Buchanan--had let fourth-graders vote in their stead. At issue is the infamous "butterfly ballot." It has been plastered across numerous web sites; check it out if you haven't yet, if only to see what folks in America are getting confused about these days.

The names of the presidential candidates run down two pages, separated by a central column where voters can register their preference by punching a bubble indicating their choice. How to know where to punch? A neat arrow extends from the candidates name to the corresponding punch hole.

Apparently this all struck some Gore supporters down in Florida as much harder than it sounds. They either accidentally voted once for Buchanan or, realizing their mistake, punched a second time and had their ballots disqualified. Thus were they, according to Gore campaign chair William Daley--drum roll please--"disenfranchised." Lawsuits on their behalf, challenging the validity of the election, are pending in the Florida courts.

It's a pity these courts will not be able to consider a recent experiment conducted by school psychologist Ron McGee. According to Fox News, McGee asked a group of fourth graders in Atlanta, Georgia, to vote for their favorite cartoon character with a ballot identical to the one used in Palm Beach. Actually, the ballot McGee used was a tad harder than its Palm Beach analogue. The two columns for best cartoon candidate got squeezed onto one page, not two, and they weren't separated by any sort of neat central punch space. But don't tell that to the dazed and confused in Palm Beach! Out of 74 fourth-graders, 74 verified they had correctly expressed their "will" the first time around.

Perhaps the group of fourth-graders was marred by "sample bias," having been selected from an unrepresentatively precocious pool of future rocket scientists and philosophers. The more likely explanation, however, is that the Palm Beach ballot is so ridiculously easy to understand that anyone who finds it confusing might render a greater service to the republic by simply staying home and not voting.

None of this bears, of course, on the advisability of manual recounting in general. For whatever reason, some ballots were not punched all the way through--the senior citizen wasn't strong enough, the paper was particularly tough, whatever. Such ballots might indicate a clear choice and yet have been mechanically rejected. Given the incredible tightness of the race in the Sunshine State, there is a case for having human beings go back and include these votes.

Yet this is clearly different from having human beings change certain clear votes to other clear votes. In a land of no-fault auto insurance and no-fault divorce, where the woman who spills coffee on herself is awarded three million dollars and the drunken student who electrocutes himself on a Dinkey rail is similarly remunerated, do we really need no-fault ballot screw-ups?

Voting for president is a serious civic responsibility, and we should take care to maintain it vigorously as such. There is no entitlement to be automatically heard, and there is certainly no right to have one's civic carelessness subsidized by others. So next time they vote, the folks who were "confused" in Palm Beach might actually consider slowing down and rereading the instructions. Barring such onerous measures, there is always the fourth grade.