Why has counting ballots become more difficult instead of easier?

Published 2:07 pm Thursday, June 4, 2009

The first vote I ever cast was in 1965 and I cast it on a mechanical voting machine in Natchez where I grew up.

Less than an hour after the polls closed, we knew that a liquor referendum had passed. Natchez had been one of the “open cities” in Mississippi where liquor sales were in openly advertised liquor stores and gambling had long flourished even when both were supposedly illegal everywhere in Mississippi, so the results weren’t a surprise, neither was the quickness with which the results were reported, for the supervisors in Adams County had long before that day decided to move from paper ballots to mechanical voting machines and spent the money to make it happen.

I became accustomed, when I was growing up, to knowing the local results of elections very quickly after the polls closed and wondered why vote counting took so long everywhere else. I asked my Dad and he told me about the voting machines and I accompanied him and Mom and my grandmother to the polls quite often as a child and watched them cast their ballots. I suppose that is why I am so adamant about voting even to this day.

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I’m also adamant about quick vote counts but since I moved from Natchez, that hasn’t happened. When Genie and I moved to Jackson after we married, that city had the punch cards that became famous during the Bush-Gore presidential election for the “hanging chads.” Punch cards were used in the big elections and paper ballots for smaller ones at that time in Jackson. As a newspaperman in Jackson, I found out all about hanging chads way back then. I also discovered that using those cards and paper ballots made for vote counting at a snail’s pace. The cards were somewhat faster than the paper ballots but did not give results nearly as rapidly as did the mechanical machines on which I cast my first ballot. Jackson would later adopt the mechanical voting machines and the pace of getting election results picked up considerably. Because of the size of the population of the city and county in which Jackson is located the results were not available as quickly as those in Natchez but much more quickly than they were in cities and counties of any size that did not have the mechanical voting machines.

For some reason the mechanical voting machines first introduced in this country in the 1890s, never became widely adopted except in larger cities, which Natchez was not, though Adams County apparently had far-seeing supervisors with big city aspirations. Expense was often given as the excuse for not adopting the mechanical machines. Officials seeking quicker vote counts bought into the claims of slick salesmen for punch card and optical reader systems to speed up vote counting. Faster snails were in the race but they were still snails and often made mistakes.

I have had a case of deja vous during the recent municipal elections. Part of the deja vous was nostalgia for the old mechanical machines that were so efficient and part of it was of memories of the first election night I spent in Jackson watching ballots being counted. At that time Jackson was using the punch cards and I became familiar with hanging chads because they were causing punch cards to hang up in the machines counting the ballots and stopping the machines. That was a long night and only the first of many long election nights until Hinds County and Jackson bought the mechanical voting machines.

No, Picayune didn’t use punch cards in this election but it did use optical scanners and, at least during the first primary, they kept jamming in the readers. Pearl River County has these new computer-based voting machines but Picayune opted not to use them because election officials didn’t want to have to travel to Poplarville to count the votes. Picayune’s choice probably didn’t slow the vote count too much, after all Poplarville used the computer-based machines and that city wasn’t too far ahead of Picayune in getting results. I’m not sure what voting methods were used in other coastal cities with municipal elections this year but every city but Waveland was ahead of both Poplarville and Picayune in getting results Tuesday night.

I have read where the mechanical voting machines are no longer manufactured and I find that sad. They were more efficient than anything now in use, in my opinion. Not even these new computer-based voting machines give results as quickly and they are far more prone to error as are all electronics — how often has your computer crashed or had some glitch that jumbled words and letters, etc. — when compared to mechanical devices that depend on gears.

With the demise of the mechanical voting machines, I’m not sure what we can do to bring efficiency and accuracy to vote counting. Maybe we just need to bring the machines back and go back to an easy to understand voting system that produces accurate results quickly when the voting is over.