The Last Refuge

Patriotism, Samuel Johnson memorably said, is the last refuge of a scoundrel: Those who would defend the indefensible invariably, inevitably wave the flag. Then they wrap themselves in it. The tactic — too often effective against a credulous public — is designed to distract from their own corrupt and corrosive activities that serve not to strengthen the republic so much as permanently ensconce themselves in power.

So it is with Senate Republicans, particularly (these last weeks, at least) those on the Judiciary Committee: while Trump literally tears us apart and tries to burn down the nation, Lindsay Graham wants to hold hearings. Into Trump? AG Bill Barr’s shameless coddling of convicted felons (and Trump cronies) Roger Stone and Michael Flynn? No! The FBI! Investigate the investigators who investigated Trump! While Trump fires all the independent government watchdogs — the Inspectors General of State, Defense, Transportation, HHS, and Intelligence. And how does Charles Grassley, who built a decades-long reputation as a defender of government accountability, react? A meek letter asking the president, please, if you would be so kind as to indulge me sir, to explain, and forgive the temerity of my question.

In the last four months we have all aged four years, if we were paying attention.

Intellectual (Dis)Honesty

Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump don’t want to defund the police. A sloppy slogan — which Carlson, at least, knows doesn’t mean what he says it means — has become a rallying point for the collapsing conservative movement and Trumpism. “Defund the police” doesn’t mean — as, again, Carlson is surely aware and which Trump might or might not be — abolish the police, dismantle the police, disband the police, dismiss the police, or even replace the police.

What it does mean is simply this: we ask the police to do too much, and it’s long past time we cut back on their mission to allow them to focus on the things only a well-trained professional police force can do. It’s time to stop asking them to be social workers, truant officers, mental health professionals, suicide prevention counsellors, poison control specialists, drug treatment counsellors, election monitors, and the thousand-and-one sundry other things we throw money at the police to do because, well, it’s just easier than hiring people who actually trained for this or want to do that.

The truth is, the police are failing right now: they fail because of mission creep. “Protect and serve” was never meant to mean, “Protect our bloated budgets and we will serve your political interests.” The answer, it seems (to listen to the Tucker Carlsons and Sean Hannitys of the world), is to repair and reform the police, presumably by throwing more money at them.

These are the same people, mind, who believe that failing public schools should be defunded — by which they mean, disbanded and shut down. Take the education budget and shovel it towards the private sector where it won’t so much educate children as enrich the well-connected, in much the same way the law-enforcement dollars spent on tanks and riot gear don’t keep the peace so much they as effect an enormous transfer of wealth out of the public coffers.

It has long been an article of faith in conservative circles that competition is a sort of magic bullet that will solve every problem. Schools not doing the job? Take away their money and inject some competition into the system, and may the best school win! Health insurance not covering your expenses? Competition is here to save you! Just read the fine print from every carrier and make an informed decision!

Public schools fail for the same reason policing fails: the ever-expanding mandate makes it impossible to focus on the core mission. If we want everyone to have a future in this country — black children, white children, special-needs children, gifted children, everybody’s children — we might take a few minutes to consider why the answer for one failing institution is to withhold funding; and for the other, to continue to throw money at the problem.

It’s past time for the proponents of charter schools and school vouchers, and the defenders of shockingly abusive police practices — so often the same people — to be honest about their agendas. The results of your intellectual dishonesty are always, always deadly.

Small Government and the USPS

Grover Norquist likes to say that government should be small enough that he can drown it in the bathtub. With the possible exception of Stephen Colbert, nobody has asked the obvious followup questions: And then what? Will you drown it? Why is that a good idea? How does that serve the American people? Republicans and libertarians are fond of talking about small or even tiny government, but the former are so lost in their rhetoric that they don’t know what it means; and the latter (for the most part) aren’t so delusional to believe that we can function without a government and be anything but a failed state. Almost everybody wants lower taxes for themselves (Warren Buffet is an admirable exception); few people want to have the more difficult conversation about what they’re willing to give up in exchange.

Government does have a purpose. There are some problems only government — big government, in fact — can solve; but for now let’s stick to small government. How small? There are four essential things a government must provide:

  • a national army
  • a national currency
  • a national road system
  • a national postal service

These (and a few other things) are all enumerated in Article 8 of the United States Constitution. This is about as small as government gets, and without these things no nation can properly call itself a functioning state. To lower your tax bill, please consider:

  • Will you give up the national defense? Do you have an alternative jobs program for the soldiers you’re throwing out of work?
  • What happens when we return to a system of private money, where banks issue their own currency?
  • Are you willing to stop complaining about potholes even while highway tolls increase under private ownership?
  • USPS is required to serve every single address in the United States. Private carriers like FedEx and UPS are not. (They’re not required to carry the junk mail, either.)

During the pandemic the postal service has proven to be an absolutely critical piece of infrastructure, a literal lifeline for millions of people who cannot leave their homes. The USPS is not without its problems, even before considering how the overnight delivery services have eaten into its market share and eroded its profitability. But there is a much bigger picture here.

Essential infrastructure must serve every business and every household. Telephone (land line) service and electric utilities are state-regulated and are required to reach every corner of their service areas no matter how remote or inconvenient. Cellular phone and broadband Internet should have reached that threshold years ago but regulators have so far failed to require universal service, arguing that robust competition among carriers will solve the problem. It has not, and it will not. Basic mail delivery — letters, packages, and bulk mailings — is, likewise, an essential part of a functioning democracy.

To threaten the existence of the USPS (and that is what is going on, though not quite so overtly) at a time when it is more necessary than ever betrays an open hostility to the basic functions of government. So let’s call it that instead of dressing it up in the usual fetish-objects of “competition” and “market forces.” Not every ill can be cured by open markets or by privatizing the functions of government. History tells us that those remedies are far worse than the disease (and they are almost always more expensive, too). We should stop pretending otherwise.

The (Non)Partisan Blame Game

Former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, in an op-ed in The Washington Post, suggests that we “avoid the partisan blame game” when the pandemic is over and we can all go back outside:

I’m worried about preventing a sickness, one we’ve been through before — much more recently than the last pandemic flu. It’s our tribal eagerness to employ 20/20 rearview vision and castigate the Other Side for its mistakes, even those made in all sincerity, even those the second-guessers failed to dispute, or even endorsed, at the outset.

Having laid out his premise, Daniels proceeds to recite his recollection of the run-up to the Iraq War. I say “recollection” to be charitable: the revisionist history that Daniels recounts posits that “the consensus conclusion of multiple national intelligence agencies was that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had or was close to acquiring weapons of mass destruction,” leaving out the part where the intelligence was cherry-picked to support the conclusion desired by the President. He leaves out the part where Colin Powell addressed the UN Security Council and knowingly bent the truth to fit the objective.

The problem, of course, is that in his analogy the Other Side — the administration and its supporters in Congress — did not make “sincere” mistakes: the evidence supporting the undeclared war was at best distorted to enhance its probative value; at worst it was fabricated.

Fast-forward to the present day, where a literal plague threatens the human population of the planet. As of 10 May 2020 (GMT):

  • 4,100,788 cases worldwide
  • 280,432 deaths worldwide

Of these, the United States — with 5% of the world’s population — has nearly 33% of the cases and  fatalities:

  • 1,347,309 cases
  • 80,037 deaths

The infection rate continues to rise in states whose governors are all too willing to “reopen” their states (or who never “closed” them). This in service to a president who bungled the federal response; who ignored at least a dozen warnings that a deadly virus was spreading around the globe; who discarded the pandemic readiness manual prepared by the previous administration; who insists that widespread testing and contact tracing are not necessary to public health and safety; who does not wear a mask in meetings, in public, or on a photo-op tour of a mask factory and who prefers to “go it alone” when it comes to developing a vaccine, rather than cooperate with global efforts.

Many countries have managed this better than we have; there is no secret to their relative success: they have implemented widespread testing and contact tracing. In the United States, while the administration and its captive governors and senators still insist that there is nothing more to be done, a number of states — going where the science tells them to go — are ramping up contact tracing programs of their own. This isn’t a new idea: it has long been standard practice for outbreaks of tuberculosis, as well as for STDs.

If it’s a good idea for STDs, why is it a bad idea for a global pandemic that (so far) has killed over 80,000 Americans, doubling its grisly yield every two weeks? Anyone?

With all respect to Governor Daniels, the blame — and there is plenty to be heaped on this administration and its minions in both federal and state governments — is not partisan. To call it “partisan” is to perpetuate the same logical fallacy that Lisa Murkowski and other senate Republicans foisted on their constituents during the impeachment trial. Refusing to participate in a democratic process doesn’t make the process partisan, it makes you partisan. It means you value your party’s control of government above the principles upon which this nation was founded.

Call it partisan all you want to. That sort of weak straw man isn’t going to sit well in the history books of the next century — if there are any. Refusal to participate, refusal to compromise, has put the nation, and the planet, on a collision course with extinction. Next up: Unprecedented flooding along the Gulf Coast while the virus rages on.

Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics

Though the phrase survival of the fittest is often used to convey the gist of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution, it was Herbert Spencer who first coined the phrase; and by it he intended the kind of winner-take-all mentality that seems embodied in today’s GOP: in a word, social Darwinism.

In the context of civil society the idea that the strong should clamber over the weak is repugnant. It is not even a sound economic and business principle, for if competition ensures innovation and lower prices (both good for society), then in any given market — let us say, for example, for widgets — the logical and eventual outcome of unfettered cutthroat competition will be monopoly or, at best, a duopoly.  Competition of the kind pro-business politicians usually say they mean cannot exist without strong antitrust enforcement; it should be noted, then, that these same politicians usually want to weaken the antitrust laws.

But in a civil — and civilized — society, the notion that the fittest will survive and the weaker elements of society will wither, fall away, and die, is as morally repellent as it is antithetical to the foundational belief that all men are created equal.  “The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics,” wrote Justice Holmes, dissenting in Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), a case decided upon the — ahem — libertarian notion, resurgent in our era, that government has no authority to interfere in any economic aspect of the individual citizen’s life.

It is settled by various decisions of this court that state constitutions and state laws may regulate life in many ways which we, as legislators, might think as injudicious, or, if you like, as tyrannical, as this, and which, equally with this, interfere with the liberty to contract…. The liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same, which has been a shibboleth for some well known writers, is interfered with by school laws, by the Post Office, by every state or municipal institution which takes his money for purposes thought desirable, whether he likes it or not.

198 U.S. at 75

More recently it was argued that government cannot compel the purchase of health insurance, that individuals should be permitted to decide how to spend each of their hard-earned dollars. Freedom! Freedom of contract, in Lochner; or the “freedom” to self-insure against catastrophic illness.

Very well; we will grant you the right to refuse health insurance if you will permit us to refuse you entrance to the Emergency Room when your appendix bursts, or when you suffer a heart attack, or when your carelessness in the kitchen threatens a digit. After all, you took the risk and assumed that you would not need health insurance; now you want the rest of us to pay for your ER visit, your cardiologist, your orthopedic surgery. In fact you assumed no risk at all, betting that the rest of us would backstop your bad decision. This is freedom defined through a looking-glass and exercised at the expense of others: exactly what laws and government are intended to prevent.

If you find this line of argument — you decided to roll the dice so man up and take your lumps — offensive: you should. But it is not the inverse of the libertarian freedom-of-contract, freedom-to-self-insure argument; it is the identical logic applied and imposed from the other direction.

The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics, and the Constitution and the laws and social structures that rest on it do not constitute a suicide pact. So, please, Michigan militiamen: your desire to “liberate” your state from “tyrannical” social-distancing orders is an unconstitutional affront to your neighbors’ desire, their right, to continue living without the unnecessary threat of disease and death that your liberation would impose on them.

Our House, Divided

Abraham Lincoln, before he ran for President, famously said, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” America was the house, and slavery — the debate over slavery, the passions over America’s original sin — divided that house and threatened to collapse it. Today we are again a house divided, but the root of that division is not quite so clear. Or is it?

We have today in the White House a man who revels in division, who sows it deliberately. It is the old Roman strategy of divide and conquer, in new clothing: those who might oppose this regime are not weakened by geographical divisions but by a kind of mental and physical exhaustion. It is exhausting to hear, read, watch, the outrages that pour from a man who occupies Lincoln’s office, sleeps in his bed, bears the standard of Lincoln’s party; a man who has never before held public office, who defiles his oath, from whom lies pour more easily than truth, who has shown by every act and every utterance his unfitness for public life in the lowest possible capacity, let alone President of the United States.

That he has corrupted his office is well beyond doubt. The senators who voted to acquit, who quickly decided against hearing from witnesses and thoroughly examining the evidence, have openly admitted as much. They want you to believe that repetition of the words “no harm” and “perfect call” will convince you, but you won’t be gaslighted — you are smarter than that.

Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible: that means, compromise. The hyperpartisan era — ushered in by Newt Gingrich — has made that all but impossible. “Compromise” has become a dirty word, and “political” a subtle derogatory for “partisan.” You know that neither is really true: you are smarter than that.

Senator Murkowski, explaining her vote to hear no witnesses in the impeachment trial, said it was due to the “partisan nature” of the entire case. She and her party would have you believe that because they refused to participate in any meaningful way, the case was partisan. You are smarter than that.

Senator Alexander would have us believe that demanding foreign interference in our elections, though “improper,” is not an impeachable offense. The correct remedy, he says, for a president who would corrupt an election is — to vote him out. That would be news to our founding fathers, as it is to you. You are smarter than that.

And Senator Collins?  What to make of her assurance that, “I think the president has learned his lesson.”  Really?  Is she that credulous?  You aren’t.  You are smarter than that.

The Republican party would have you believe that a process is fatally flawed and hopelessly partisan because they have chosen non-participation. You know better: you see through their excuses, you know that by withdrawing they can label any process or legislation as “partisan.” Their vision of “bipartisanship” and “compromise” is strained at best: legislation, in their view, is only bipartisan if Democrats cross over to support it.

Laws aren’t supposed to be Republican or Democratic, depending on the party in power. The values that made America great aren’t the exclusive property of Lincoln or Jefferson. They did not spring, spontaneously and fully-formed, from Madison’s pen. Our constitition has endured precisely because it was forged in compromise: hammer on one side, anvil on the other. Some truths — these truths — are self-evident, and yet the president and his co-conspirators would tell you that black is white, up is down, wrong is right; and through ceaseless repetition they would exhaust you until you relent. You know better; you are smarter than that.

A house divided against itself, Lincoln told us, cannot stand. Today we seem to be more divided than ever, certainly more than we have been since Lincoln’s time. The great social divider of a half-century ago, the war in Vietnam, did not prevent the Congress and our national government from achieving great milestones. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Clean Air Act: we have seen few similar legislative accomplishments since. These were all products of compromise, of Democrats and Republicans working together to achieve a common purpose. The Affordable Care Act is the accomplishment of this generation, and it has been labeled “partisan” because Republicans saw political advantage in refusing to participate. Think about that for just a moment: men and women sent to Congress by their constituents for the purpose of legislating in the national interest, sought political advantage in refusing to participate in the legislative process. Don’t fall for their ruse. You are smarter than that.

We are now in a worldwide public health crisis like none seen in two generations: It has been a century since the last great pandemic, and the president of the United States has, by his inaction, made it worse. His go-to mode is denial, followed by deflection. Not long ago he insisted this was something that “nobody could have predicted.” The next day he continues to say he is smarter and more prescient than anyone else: “I thought it would be a pandemic long before anyone said the word ‘pandemic’.”  And this week, “it could have been stopped, should have been stopped a long time ago but somebody decided not to do anything about it.”  Well, yes.  He casts blame outward, the buck stopping everywhere except his desk or even his White House.

You are smarter than that. You know that both statements cannot be true: either it was unpredictable, or he predicted it. If he
predicted it, why are we only now learning of this? Why were we caught flatfooted and unprepared?  Either earlier action could have stopped it, or it could not.  The story changes with dizzying speed, the lies and nonsense spewing faster and faster while he tries not to reap the fruits of his own incompetence.

You are smarter than that.

Our government has been hollowed out, from Justice to State, from Energy to Interior, from the EPA to the CIA. Professionals — career men and women whose choice was to serve the American people regardless of the president’s party or the congressional majority, have departed in droves. In their place are hacks who want only to serve the president — this specific president — not the people, not the country. It is Amateur Hour aboard the ship of state.

A house divided against itself cannot stand.  We must stand together — apart, for now, united in our agreement to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.  We must also stand together, shoulder to shoulder, to arrest and reverse the continuing decline of our institutions, the guarantors of our freedom and of our democracy.  We are smarter than that.

Party Differences

No matter what anybody says about the two parties being “no different”: they are.  The GOP doesn’t care how deep in the mud they have to get to win.  Race-baiting ads and dog-whistle code words have been standard practice since David Gergen and Roger Ailes kicked off Nixon’s Southern Strategy.  Reagan had his Welfare Queen and Strapping Young Buck, GHW Bush had Willie Horton. The list goes on and on.  (McCain and Romney were arguably more principled — and lost.  The lesson for the GOP wasn’t, “Improve your product.”  It was, “Whatever it takes.”)

The difference between the parties comes down to two things, I believe:

  • Democrats want to win on the merits; Republicans want to win.
  • Democrats want to govern; Republicans want to rule.

The second point shows why the first is so important.  We ignore the difference between “govern” and “rule” at our peril.

Genocide

The tragic events that continually unfold in Sudan (like the events in Rwanda a decade since) are, the world must acknowledge, genocidal in their scope, in their intent, in their effect.  For all intents and purposes, the world has acknowledged these facts; and yet the world has stood by, continues to stand by and watch it happen.  One is tempted to observe, bitterly, that genocide has become a spectator sport — but spectator sports garner far more attention, and indeed far more money.

The United Nations decries it; the United States has, through its Department of State, declared the unraveling in Darfur to be genocide; and yet neither can muster the political will — or the military force — to intervene: the former because it is chronically weak, the latter because its forces are bogged down, as it were, in the Central Asian desert, the sand turning marshy as the blood pours recklessly, needlessly, and indiscriminately from invader and indigenous, infidel and faithful.

The world stands by as the people of Darfur are slaughtered.  One is forced to wonder: Is the genocide-ignorer a genocide-enabler?

The United States deplores the events, but the colossus too is impotent.  And one’s thoughts turn to America’s self-inflicted wounds, and the coming bloodbath in Iraq: genocide is in the wind there, too, and we are all but powerless to stop it.  The invasion set it in motion, “Mission Accomplished” assured its emergence, and our continued presence slows its arrival — for now.  And the question arises:  When a power (however inadvertently) create the conditions for genocide, does it thereby undertake a continuing obligation to prevent it?

These are not idle or theoretical questions, by any means: They are central to winding down America’s misadventure Iraq, and they neatly define the quandary of Americans who opposed the invasion of Iraq as unwarranted and now oppose withdrawal as immoral.

The argument runs something like this: Having once created an unstable and untenable situation in Iraq, the United States cannot now walk away from the civil war that has ensued.  Or: We lit the fire, after all; we ought to stick around long enough to put it out.

Alas, this is not a fire that can long be contained, much less extinguished.  Like the wildfires that devastate the American west, this one will (I fear) have to burn itself out.  The cultural animosities infecting the peoples of Iraq have alternately simmered and boiled over for centuries.  Only Saddam’s brutality held the region together as a modern nation-state, as no occupying power — no matter how benign or benevolent — could ever do: the Ottomans had a hard time of it, and the British failed utterly.  Now the United States takes its turn, and by freeing three disparate (and antipathetic) peoples from the tyrant’s grasp has unleashed the ethnic conflict and super-heated it.

For Iraq it hardly matters, at this moment, whether U.S. ground forces stay or go: by staying they forestall the inevitable conflagration; perhaps when it does occur, the other nations of the world will see fit to step in and suppress the violence.  Meanwhile, other corners of the world where the American forces could make a positive difference — Darfur being uppermost at this moment — burn and bleed, because American forces are, as of now, spread too thin.  Multilateral action — the African Union, the United Nations — has been tepid at best; only the United States has the power to take the kind of action, unilaterally, that is required.

And so the giant is twice shamed: for not intervening when it could, and then tying its own hands by intervening where it shouldn’t.

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Additional resources:

“A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” (Samantha Power)

“We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda” (Philip Gourevitch)

“Encyclopedia of Genocide (2 Volumes)” (ABC-Clio Inc)

SaveDarfur.org has a post called “Educate Others” that’s worth checking out…

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have responded to the suffering in Darfur by standing up and demanding that their governments take action to end the crisis. However, many individuals still have not heard about the genocide in Darfur. To build the political will necessary to…

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Surging Generals

With the long-overdue departure of Donald Rumsfeld (not to mention the arrival, come January 4, of some much-needed adult supervision from Congress), perhaps the defense establishment can engage an honest and open debate about Iraq. For the last week the punditocracy and the retired generals on the talking-head circuit have chattered on about the “surge,” the idea being that an additional insertion of 20,000 or so ground forces would turn the tide in Iraq.

That tide went out many, many months ago, and it’s not coming back in. We have two choices: issue an apology and leave; or continue to watch our blood and treasure disappear into the desert sands, never to return.

What is now being called “the surge” is nothing more nor less than Frank Rich, Thomas Friedman, and others have been writing about for some weeks now: it is code for an invasion de novo in Iraq. It is the only way, at this point, to secure the country so that the really critical job of building (and repairing) basic infrastructure can get properly under way.

Why the Orwellian euphemism? Because distortion of language is a lesson this Republican party has learned well; it is Karl Rove’s stock-in-trade. Because in the absence of any real plan or progress, the only alternative — Rumsfeld himself as much as admitted it in his “deathbed” memorandum — is to attempt to redefine (for example) “victory” downward. As so many other things in this sorry war foisted on the world by this sorry administration, this “only alternative” is so only when regarded through the Bush funhouse prism, the one that presents all of the decider’s decisions in stark Manichean terms, as the obvious selection from a set of false choices.

All of which brings us back to those talking generals: some indeed say that a “surge” would secure Baghdad (for example) to better enable the training of Iraqi troops and police and permit the rebuilding to continue apace, without the distraction of open warfare in the streets (and around the power plants). Others, more realistic, perhaps, point out that a surge is another band-aid, a tactical response to a strategic blunder.

The problem with the surge is not that it’s a flawed idea (it isn’t); it is that we haven’t sufficient ground forces nor matériel to accomplish the job. The surge is, rather, a “do-over,” a weak attempt to correct our initial strategic blunder (the invasion) and tactical error (assignment of insufficient resources) by trying, too long after the fact, to “get it right.” We had the men and equipment in 2003, but Rumsfeld insisted we didn’t need them; the results were disastrous. Now that we have created chaos where there was none; terrorists where there were none; and contempt in the wake of admiration; we have squandered our resources and our prestige, and there is no getting them back. Recovery of our national pride will not be had by doubling-down a bad bet, but by a frank and full confession of our error.

The invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, up to the present day and into the foreseeable future under any circumstances, has been one enormous national humiliation. The executive lied, the legislature waffled, and the judiciary is doing its best to turn a blind eye to extra-legal excesses that are more effective at highlighting American hypocrisy than extracting intelligence or “keeping us safe” in any meaningful way. In short, democracy has failed and its true meaning bled away, drop by precious drop.

It would be refreshing if the debate, in Congress and on the opinion pages, included an acknowledgment of the real reason anyone is considering a surge: to forestall admission of “defeat” and thus preserve — for some segment of the voting public — the sense of “honor and dignity” that Bush promised to “restore” (as if it were ever missing). We have already been defeated, as much by our own hubris and want of planning as by any enemy; the only thing that remains, if our national honor is truly to be restored, is to issue an apology and walk away, chastened. It’s time for us to grow up and see ourselves as the world sees us.

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Vote counting

The debate over electronic votes — as noisy and as intellectually impoverished as it has been — has missed the central point, and the central problem. Many of the technologies being pushed — Diebold’s touch-screens come to mind — make the fatal error of conflating two distinct acts: the casting of votes, and the counting of the votes cast. The focus has been on counting, not casting: with accurate counting as the priority, the “new and improved” process is optimized for the convenience of the county clerk, whose (tedious) job it is to tally ballots.

This focus on counting misses the point of voting in the first place: if the first priority isn’t accurately recording the voter’s intent, accurate counting doesn’t count for much. If we were serious about solving (or at least mitigating) the problems that have made electronic balloting famous (or infamous) of late, we might try examining it as a system — with discrete component parts — rather than as a function. The essential components are, of course:

  1. Record the votes: The voter’s choice is accurately recorded, in fixed and tangible form. This means that a paper trail is required: simply displaying the choice on-screen won’t do.
  2. Count the votes: The recorded ballots are tallied, and (if necessary) tallied again. For the sake of simplicity, the paper ballots might be scanned, separated, and tallied; for the sake of accuracy, it might be worthwhile to employ multiple methods.

Much has been made of the need for paper trails, but even so the processes of casting and counting, of recording and tallying, coalesce into the single process of “voting.” A paper trail actually serves two distinct purposes: it verifies, to the voter, that the vote recorded is the vote he cast (see 1, above); and it provides a means of counting tangible, physical ballots (refer to 2, supra).

[Update: an editorial in The New York Times stresses the need for a paper trail and calls for Congress to act, after yet another election debacle in Florida.]
The fundamental difficulty, as noted above, is that the purchasing decisions are effectively made by the people who specify the equipment: the county clerks; and those decisions are heavily influenced by the equipment vendors, who often hire retiring clerks as “consultants” who can credibly lobby their former peers. Every interest, in short, is served save one: that of the voter.

What’s wrong with this picture?