In the battle for the presidency, who should win: man or machine?

By David Holcberg
web posted November 27, 2000

The only thing all Republicans and Democrats seem to agree with, is that the vote count should be "fair, accurate, and final." But what do these concepts mean? Who should do the counting? And how should the counting be done?

These concepts certainly seem to mean very different things for Republicans and Democrats, for they have totally opposite answers to all the above questions. Republicans insist that the machine counts were fair, accurate and therefore should be final. Democrats reject the Republican's position, and claim that only hand-counts are really fair, accurate, and final.

On the one side we have Republicans and counting machines, and on the other, Democrats and counting individuals. How to decide? Who should prevail in this contest between Man and Machine?

It seems quite reasonable that a fair count should not favor any candidate, or discriminate against any voter. A fair count should treat all the same, candidates and voters, without exceptions, privileges, or special rules.

Machines, by nature, cannot favor or discriminate. Individuals, on the other hand, are not only able to favor and discriminate, but are used to doing so all the time.

Democrats attempt to justify hand-recounts by arguing that "votes" intended for Gore were not counted by the machines: the infamous chads. Well, but neither were the chads for Bush counted. The machines did exactly what they were supposed to do: they counted valid ballots. They have been counting ballots in this way for years, in countless counties in America. The machines didn't pick and chose between Gore and Bush voters. The machines were impersonally fair.

Also in regard to fairness, former secretary of State James Baker was very eloquent when he pointed out that "machines are neither Democrats nor Republicans, and they can have no conscious or unconscious bias." In other words, machine counts are fair because they are utterly ignorant of what they're doing. Machines cannot be dishonest or prejudiced. They root for no one.

How about accuracy? What kind of count would be the more accurate? Man-count, or machine-count?

The science of statistics tells us that the most accurate count would be the one with the smallest margin of error. Put simply, the one that makes fewer mistakes would be the more accurate of the two.

Humans, as we all know, are liable to make a multiplicity of different errors, especially while working long hours and under lots of pressure. Who among us would not eventually but inevitably get tired, unfocused, distracted, bored, sleepy, or sloppy, after days counting ballots designed to be read not by human eyes--but by optical scanners?

This should not inspire confidence
This should not inspire confidence

Moreover, there is the fact that more than one hundred and twenty thousand voters in Florida were not accurate enough to correctly follow arrows and punch holes. Why on earth would we assume that people who spoiled their own votes are able to count ours?

Every single time a machine counts a vote, it does so in the same programmed manner, by exactly the same inbuilt standards, over and over again. Machines are usually constructed to execute specific functions. Vote-counting machines are designed for the specific single purpose of counting votes. If you doubt a counting machine's accuracy to count, try your pocket calculator--or an ATM machine.

In sum, a machine's margin of error is constrained by its mechanical structure, while an individual's margin of error may be quite liberal.

Even more important than the obvious difference in fairness and accuracy between both counting methods, is the fact that no objective standards exist in the hand-counts. This alone, if nothing else, should raise a screaming-red flag. As we witnessed during the past days, the criteria for counting votes was modified many times, starting with the light-passing test, evolving to the later inclusion of "pregnant" chads, "indented" chads, and "swinging chads," and finishing with the admission of "dimples" and "indentations."

As compared to the accuracy and fairness of hand-counts, machine-counts win hands down.

The remaining problem, of which count should be the final one, is a secondary matter, and should be decided in accordance to pre-established law, not judicial "activist" edict. In fact, the particularities of the counting methods involved can offer us no guidance as to when the election should end, and therefore shouldn't even be considered in reaching this decision. Only law can guide us through the whole process, and should most definitely not be used to manipulate it.

If justice is to ultimately prevail, and if America is to have a legitimate President -- a man who earns what he gets, and does not take the undeserved -- let the Machines claim their victory.

David Holcberg is a freelance writer and has appeared in Capitalism Magazine on a regular basis.

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