Votomatic. The word has a lovely New Frontier kind of ring to it. But rather than something to drag down to "The Antiques Road Show" for an appraisal, Votomatic is the commercial name for the 1960s' era punch-card machines on which we cast our ballots in Los Angeles County, the largest voting jurisdiction in the United States. With more than 4 million registered voters, 2.7 million of whom took part in the November 2000 election, we exercised our most sacred of constitutional rights by punching out the infamous chad on the legendary Votomatic, fabled for its role in the Florida election debacle.
The machines, purchased by the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters in 1968, were once the height of technological innovation. Of course, color television was the height of technological innovation at the time, and we're not talking broad-band. Yet instead of donating these anachronisms to the Smithsonian, we will be dutifully dislodging our chad in Tuesday's mayoral race, which promises to be a squeaker.
The county Registrar of Voters deploys 37,000 Votomatics to 4,963 precincts supervised by 25,000 poll workers who distribute millions of punch cards every election day. Not only are we the largest voting jurisdiction in the U.S., casting more ballots than in 41 of the 50 states, but we are also a county that claims among its voters some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the nation. But do all our votes count?
In Los Angeles County, in the 2000 presidential election, about 2.2%, or 60,000 ballots, contained undervotes (no vote for president) and about 0.5%, or 13,000 ballots, had overvotes (more than one vote for president). About 73,000 ballots went uncounted and were never scrutinized, as they have been in Florida, where many such ballots have been readable (or at least disputable).
In the crowded mayor's race, where a few hundred votes may separate the runoff candidates from the also-rans, the plaintive wail of recount demands and an institution of the full-employment act for lawyers is the likely outcome. And who would blame the candidates or their supporters?
The Registrar of Voters is adamant that our 1968 Votomatics are scrupulously maintained and that the integrity of the electoral process is above reproach. And it may well be that the registrar's office is doing the best it can with its meager resources. But we can do better. Alternative voting systems are available, including the touch-screen system (similar to ATMs) that prevent many of the casting and counting problems endemic to the Votomatic. And 21,000 county voters cast ballots on touch-screen machines in a pilot program during the 2000 election.
Unfortunately, the estimated $100-million cost of scrapping the current system and implementing a more modern one has proven prohibitive. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors thus far has been unwilling to spend the additional $3 million needed to expand the touch-screen project.
It will take a partnership between all levels of government to fund the purchase of new equipment and provide the voter education to make it work.
After the last election, it appeared that Congress, the state Senate and Assembly, the county Board of Supervisors and the county Registrar of Voters, working with the California secretary of state, were prepared to make voting reform a priority. So far they have failed to act. How can we, the citizens of one of the most creative and technologically advanced places on the planet, be unwilling to invest our resources in upholding the very foundation of our democracy? One person, one vote, cast and counted, is the very least we can ask from our government and a responsibility that our government must hold among its highest priorities. Until then, every election day will be a blast to the past.