Low tech wonders

When area residents go to the polls Nov. 5 they will cast their votes using voting machines that appear old, archaic and hopelessly outdated. But looks can be deceiving.

The mechanical voting machines used here in Prince William County for more than three decades are still among the most accurate ways of casting a ballot. The machines are used at almost every polling place and require the voter to pull a lever which closes the curtain. Inside, the voter goes over his or her selections by pulling down switches before pulling the large lever back to record the vote and reopen the curtain.

There was a time when this was the preferred means of voting across the United States before technology brought in other “more streamlined” methods. Some localities switched to using punch cards, others use computerized scanners while others use high tech, computerized touch screen ballots.

Florida, which has turned mismanaged elections into an art form, has overseen two questionable elections. There was the close presidential election of 2000 when George W. Bush narrowly defeated Al Gore. That election accelerated the demise of punch card ballots where “dimpled chads” compromised the ballots of voters from both sides.

Florida spent millions to reform its ballots by purchasing updated touch screen ballots where voters could simply touch the computer screen to make their choice. It should have worked, but it didn’t as poll workers failed to read the instructions and some computers were never programmed correctly. Computers, of course, are only as smart as their masters.

With the U.S. Congress almost evenly divided among the two major political parties, it’s almost certain that the losers in various races will say they were beaten by lousy voting methods whether it’s through punch cards, touch screens or the casting of lots. Somewhere, someone will mess things up.

The chances of that happening here in Prince William are slim thanks to the stubbornness of the county registrar’s office. Local voting officials have resisted the temptation to switch to other “more simpler” means of collecting votes.

Prince William is one of the dwindling number of localities that still uses the mechanical voting machines, though some counties still wish they had kept theirs. The machines are amazingly simple and resilient. Plus, they have a superior reputation for accuracy.

The machines are big and cumbersome but rarely break down and are almost impossible to damage. In fact, it’s been said that one of these machines accidentally rolled down a sidewalk at the Chinn Library before flipping over onto the concrete. A technician came and banged out a few dents and the machine worked perfectly on Election Day.

The bad news, however, is the fact that these electoral dinosaurs will eventually become extinct because they are no longer manufactured. This means Prince William County will have to convert to some other means when the machines finally give out in about another three decades.

For now, it’s nice to know that the votes cast here on Election Day will be counted. Yet another thing we do better than Florida.

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