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Election Mess Is Mother of Invention

November 17, 2000|Steve Chawkins

Over the last few days, I've devoted much thought to a frightening question: Can an election--theoretically a process with all the beautiful simplicity of eenie-meenie-minie-moe--possibly be made any more complex than the current one?

Bruce Bradley, Ventura County's elections chief, minced no words.

"If there were a gap of just a few hundred votes here in California, it would make Florida look like a school picnic."

Size makes all the difference, he said, pointing out that California still has more than 1.5 million absentee ballots yet to be counted.

In Ventura County, a full recount would take at least three weeks, with no interruptions from the inevitable armada of attorneys and miscellaneous political weasels. And where would we do this recount? he asked. The County Government Center doesn't have enough space for both the elections workers and the half a dozen concerned observers who would hover over each one. So we'd have to find an auditorium somewhere, but . . .

Can all this be simpler? I asked.

"Just have everyone raise their hands," Bradley suggested.

Undeterred, I continued my search.

The election has become so complex--such a Rube Goldberg scheme of chutes and mousetraps--that I wanted to ask the famous cartoonist if he could improve upon it.

Here, for instance, is the text of Goldberg's solution to the problem of forgetting to mail his wife's letters:

"As you walk past cobbler shop, hook (A) strikes suspended boot (B), causing it to kick football (C) through goal posts (D). Football drops into basket (E) and string (F) tilts sprinkling can (G), causing water to soak coattails (H). As coat shrinks, cord (I) opens door (J) of cage, allowing bird (K) to walk out on perch (L) and grab worm (M) which is attached to string (N). This pulls down window shade (O) on which is written, 'YOU SAP, MAIL THAT LETTER.' "

But Goldberg, whose "inventions" earned him a Pulitzer Prize, died in 1970.

The incredible thing is that he had nothing to do with the electoral college or the butterfly ballot.

Fortunately, though, he has disciples.

At Purdue University, engineering students from across the country compete in the design and construction of Rube Goldberg machines. This year's winning team, from the University of Texas, was led by a 23-year-old grad student named Bruns. His first name, and I'm sure his parents meant him no harm, is Chad.

As soon as I located him, I commissioned Chad as my unpaid consultant. Here is his elegant solution to the problem of voting:

1. Voter is asked to insert pin in one of two holes with an arrow next to it.

2. Trapdoor opens to swallow those who can't figure it out.

3. For each correct answer, a chad falls on a mousetrap.

4. String from mousetrap is attached to rubber hand, which pivots and smacks a pollster.

5. Jingling change in pockets draws nearby lawyers, who trip a wire in rush to voting booth.

6. Wire releases bucket of water onto small hook made of starch, which dissolves, releasing a curtain.

7. Voter pulls donkey tail or elephant trunk. Independents step on foot pedal of trash can.

Bruns, a Libertarian, acknowledged that he hasn't yet devised a way to count the votes.

"Can I get back to you on that?" he asked.

Sure, but not before I take a whack at the problem myself.

1. Voter enters polling place.

2. Right foot hits hidden button, triggering klaxon horn.

3. Horn frightens California condor off his perch.

4. Condor swoops toward voter, hitting rubberized pole.

5. Vibrations release bowling ball, which drops onto teeter-totter.

6. Catapulted into air, voter suddenly recalls every awful decision he has made since age 18.

7. Sobered, he lands in voting booth, pulls levers for his choices.

8. Levers release mice, who race for cheese at bottom of chutes.

9. Mice spit out flower seeds embedded in cheese. Democrats are roses; Republicans petunias; etc.

10. Election is decided in several months by tallying flowers that come up.

Then again, a simple show of hands might be perfectly lovely.


Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at

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