Sunday | September 21, 2003
The Problem IS the Punch Cards
This morning’s New York Times declares The Problem isn’t the Punch Cards. It’s the People.
The article begins by laying out the rationale behind the suit to postpone the California recall election that is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (which The Times misidentifies as the Ninth District). Punch card voting machines, according to the suit’s plaintiffs, destroy or miscount more ballots than newer machines. Punch card voting takes place in only six California counties. Voters in those six counties are unfairly subjected to a higher likelihood of having their votes not being counted because of mechanical failure than voters in the rest of the state; thus, voters in these counties would be denied fair and equal opportunity to have their votes counted should the election take place before the comparatively faulty machines are replaced with newer, more accurate machines. In short, voters in these six counties risk being disenfranchised.
Being disenfranchised by faulty technology is not, however, all that significant according to The Times, because "even voting rights advocates acknowledge that the ballots destroyed by mechanical failures are but a fraction of the votes lost in other ways.
"The real disenfranchisement, they say, takes place not in the voting booth, where a voter has a 96 percent or better chance of having his or her choice counted, regardless of the technology used. The truly disenfranchised are those who never make it to the polling place at all.”
Now it’s not at all clear from the article whether the voting rights activists actually characterized non-voting as “disenfranchisement.” I also wonder about the implication that voting rights activists “say the argument over chads misses the point. Blacks and Latinos are underrepresented not because they vote on outmoded machines, but because millions of them are not registered or motivated to vote.” That statement doesn’t miss “the” point of the lawsuit: it has nothing to do with the point of lawsuit.
The disputes in this case are first, whether properly cast ballots in the gubernatorial recall election will have an equal chance of being counted, regardless of who cast them or where; and second, whether discrepancies that might exist in the percentage of mechanically destroyed ballots constitute unfair or unequal treatment of those wishing to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Bringing in the issue of non-voters changes the frame of the debate by insinuating that the plaintiffs brought this suit to secure special treatment to compensate for the low participation rates of minority voters.
A vice president of one of the groups that filed the recall lawsuit is quoted talking about low election participation by Latinos as being “an ‘illness’” that needs to be addressed, and “one way is through this lawsuit.” That quote and others imply that voting rights activists do not distinguish between non-voting—which could be an indication of disinterest, or disengagement, or disillusionment—and disenfranchisement, which is a illegal denial of one’s constitutional right to vote. Let’s hope the voting rights activists didn’t make this mistake. If they didn’t, let’s hope The Times stops using their out of context quotes to make it for them.