Democracy works a lot smoother when the big races aren't close.
A few days before last Tuesday, Time magazine published a cover story on "Seven things that could go wrong on Election Day," from malfunctioning voting machines to scrambled databases of registered voters. A companion piece by Mike Murphy discussed how both major parties were typically paranoid about what each other might do to rig the results, and with good reason.
We had become conditioned by two close presidential elections, and especially by a 2000 Election Day that lasted a month. We had forgotten how problems seem to disappear when the race isn't close.
They don't really disappear, of course. Even a newly vacuumed rug can look filthy under a microscope. But on Tuesday, no one felt the need to pull out a microscope.
Utah's lieutenant governor, Gary Herbert, was at no loss for positive things to say about Utah's own touch screen voting a few days after the election. "Let me tell you, it was smooth as a baby's bottom how things went," he said. Oh, there were a few little rashes on that bottom. A power failure hit two polling places in Salt Lake City, but backup batteries kept things going. Elsewhere, one voter complained about a machine not being calibrated right.
But no one has yet devised a fool-proof way to conduct democracy. If people had pulled out a microscope on Tuesday, they probably would have turned it on Missouri, where the presidential race still remained in doubt as this was written. As washingtonpost.com reported on Wednesday, one Kansas City, Mo., ward ended up with huge voter backups because a registration list was scrambled. You didn't hear much about that because, as it turned out, Missouri didn't matter.
Voter watchdog groups fielded literally thousands of reports of irregularities nationwide on Tuesday. But they seemed to fade away like invisible ink. The voter fraud flavor of the year was an ingenious high-tech misinformation campaign. In some places, young people received mysterious text messages giving wrong information about where and when to vote. Some told them that, because of unusually high turnout, they should wait until Wednesday to show up.
Imagine how that would have dominated headlines if Barack Obama and John McCain were fighting over every little vote.
Instead, all the attention is on Obama's victory. We don't really know if every vote counted, but we're certain a detailed analysis wouldn't change the outcome.
That's the way it has been through much of the nation's history. Other than Ohio in 2004 and Florida in 2000, you have to go back to the tight election of 1960 to find serious news stories about potential fraud. Does that really mean every other election in between was clean?
No, but it does mean that, if the problems of 2000 never happened, we wouldn't be using electronic voting machines in Utah or anywhere else.
It might be hard to find a bigger supporter of electronic voting than Herbert, whose office oversees all elections in the state. But even he admits we have the machines as a knee-jerk reaction to Florida that year. Yet he reminded me that more than 37,000 punch cards were temporarily lost in Utah County in 2004, due to human error. "There is no perfect system, because of the human element," he said, but electronic voting is as good as it gets.
My eldest son is studying in China. He sent an e-mail last week, describing how he tried to explain America's election system to his Chinese tutor, from the Electoral College to how each state has its own election system and rules. Language wasn't the biggest barrier in the conversation. His tutor was flummoxed.It is indeed a messy way to empower people in the most powerful nation on earth, and it is made all the more frail by the use of volunteer labor. But that messiness is its strength. Regular everyday volunteers are the keepers of the oil that makes the flame of the republic flicker, and it seems only fitting that it be so. It's just that when 133.3 million people show up to vote, it's hard to keep from spilling here and there.