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Rather Insane

By B.j. Greenleaf

What the hell is going on in this country? Election night gave us the most famous double-bungle in recent reporting history. As poor Dan Rather was forced to tell the world that Florida was miss-called in what head statisticians called a "beaut of a mistake," Rather could only grin sheepishly and attempt to shore up the remainder of the journalistic integrity and credibility left in his haggard body. As the hours wore him down, he eventually experienced what could only be described as a full-blown psychotic episode. Mounting pressure forced Dan into cryptic quasi-stream-of-consciousness spewings like "...we won't know until all the marbles and chalk are on the table." His coverage past 2 a.m. was beyond eerie, as a clearly unhinged man attempted to fill airtime with histrionic Shatnerian pauses and complex explanations of simple arithmetic. When Dan finally, and awkwardly, announced a winner, I, like many others, cursed our country's fate and went to bed.

As I read the news of the undecided election in The Crimson the next day my mind immediately flashed to Dan Rather. I actually feared for his mental health. In my mind's eye I imagined him getting the news of the second Florida reversal, his eyes rolling back in his sockets and his head detonating, raining debris all over his computerized touch-sensitive election monitoring system. But as I turned on the news that evening however, I was relieved to see good ol' Dan, having aged about two years in two days, but as mentally sound as he has ever been. However, continuing election chaos threatens to further fracture Dan's fragile psyche.

We have thousands of votes for Vice President Al Gore '69 disappearing from a single county in New Mexico in a recount because of a "computer glitch." We see electors holding ballots up to the light, attempting to channel the voter who may or may not have meant to punch all the way through the flimsy card. We are told of "hanging chads," pieces of the ballot where the stylus should have punched all the way through and detached a small round confetti-like piece of paper, but instead leave the piece hanging by a cellulose thread. These chads, among other problems with the paper ballots, cause vote counting machines to have, by one estimate, margins of error at about 2 percent to 5 percent (the election right now is hinging on about 0.005 percent of the vote in Florida).

And then, the crown jewel of the voting fiasco, the ineptly designed Palm Beach "butterfly" ballot, a ballot that caused thousands of primarily minority voters to wail that they may have given their precious vote to (gasp!) Pat Buchanan. Even Pat "The Nazi" Buchanan admits that these votes were not for him (probably out of some sort of desire to keep all of his votes "ethnically pure"), but we need not just take his word for it. Statisticians put the probability that fewer than 1743 (the margin between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Gore before this first recount) of the disputed Buchanan votes were meant for Gore is less than one in one billion. It seems the voters have been bamboozled not by a vicious and scheming "vast right-wing conspiracy" bent on disenfranchising the masses, but instead by sheer ineptitude, both on the part of the designers of the ballot and the designers of a cheap and inaccurate punch-card system. Need I even mention that we are in the 21st Century? Is the best system for reading the will of the people truly an ugly fusion of ancient paper technologies, a blunt metal mini-club held over from our pre-sentient days roaming the planes of Africa, and poorly controlled, circa 1970's computer ballot reading machines?

One potential way to ensure the will of the people is to engineer a voting system where voters can check the validity of their ballots themselves. Simply put, ballots need to be easy to read and easy to check for errors (two simple and very basic requirements lacking in the Palm Beach ballot, as well as in ballots around the country). It tells you a little something about the efficiency and effectiveness of the government compared to the private sector when we get more confirmation that our will has been recorded purchasing a book from Amazon.com than we do voting in the greatest representative democracy of the world. Like many shortcomings in the federal government, it comes down to accountability: If Amazon.com loses a small but noticeable percentage of its business, it may very well go under, but if election officials lose a similar number of votes as a consequence of ineptitude, it usually won't matter too much. In fact we wouldn't normally even hear about it. Well, now it does matter and we are hearing about it. The gross and inaccurate workings of the election system are laid bare.

Free and accurate elections are the lifeblood of any mature democracy, not to mention crucial in assuring that the next president will have all the authority that a U.S. President should have. Our election system is broken. It is time to demand that our will be registered quickly, accurately and fairly. An election is not meant to be a glorified poll with marginally smaller margins of error, but an accurate and binding reflection of the will of the people. It is time to standardize and modernize our voting system in the U.S., if not for the people's sake, than at least for Dan Rather's. Let's get him back to reporting on Alaskan prize pumpkins and Angiostatin. Who knows what another election scandal would do to him.

B.J. Greenleaf '01 is a physics concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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