It’s not just the merits of the case. It’s the technology.
The voting debacle brought to Iowa by the Democratic National Committee and the Iowa Democratic Party is a sobering lesson in how difficult it is to tinker with tried-and-true methods of voter tabulation. The minute one hears of a faster and more accurate method of reporting vote totals, especially via a new computer program, skepticism is required.
Apparently, those who want to eliminate the electoral college want to replace 50 state election systems with one national system that counts the popular vote. Color us skeptical. The merits or demerits of the electoral college aside, it tabulates votes based on 50 separate elections, one in each state. If one of these 50 elections is corrupted by technical failures, which the Iowa debacle shows is possible, such a failure, yes, could be decisive in the ultimate electoral outcome — see Florida, 2000 — but one failure would more likely be offset by the accuracy of 49 other state elections. If there is only a single, national election, and a single, national reporting system, and if did not work perfectly the very first time, then what? Faith in the credibility of the election would be undermined. American democracy would be in crisis.
There is a spurious idea out there that when it comes to technology, new automatically means better. Well, compare the cost and convenience of everything from auto repair to refrigerator repair on the newest models, loaded up with the most extensive, sophisticated computers available, with the the 10-year-old model. In computer program advancement, it takes time to sort the good from the bad. It takes time to test a new program, and the more complex it is, the longer it takes to test. Advances are not linear. Trial-and-error, not only in the lab but in the real world, is indispensable. New is not inevitably better.
In a single national election, the vote-tabulating system would have to be perfect from the get go. It makes no sense to prevent voter fraud yet insist on less than perfection in vote tabulation, since there is no second chance. Based on the Iowa caucuses, we don’t see computerized election-reportage innovators ready for prime time, even if it were a good idea to scrap the electoral college in favor of a single national election (which we don’t think it is, but that’s for another time).
If the only way to guarantee accuracy in a single national election were to delay election results by days, this would nurture conspiracy theories. The much delayed results in Iowa were only in one state, and only for a primary. That won’t fly in our world of instant communication. But would a single national vote-tabulating system work?
Whoever has been to the doctor lately has noticed that more time is spent on updating electronic medical records than on the delivery of medical care. Yet, those who speak of a “single payer” solution to health care costs assume that it would work as smooth as silk. The merits or demerits of single payer aside, we are skeptical of the assumption that the only question here is whether single payer is a good idea, not whether it is technologically possible. Could a single national agency handle manage hundreds of millions of people and trillions of data points daily? Color us skeptical on single payer, even if we supported it in principle, which we do not, but that too is for another time.
Clearly, the country is capable of building highly complex computer systems. The very defense of our country depends on mastery of the complex computer by the Dept. of Defense in countless weapons and related systems. But it has taken decades to build and test these, and they are tested in hands-on war scenarios in Afghanistan and elsewhere every day. How would a national vote-tabulation system be rolled out to work in its full complexity the first time around? And if it is possible, how long does it take to test to get it to perfection? These seemingly technical questions actually get to the heart of the idea of doing away with the electoral college. Iowa is an important cautionary tale.
Bottom line: Old technology — paper ballots — saved the day in Iowa. Are we ready to count hundreds of millions of paper ballots?
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