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Window Manager
Brian Livingston
America's election confusion means it may be a 'Windows Millennium' after all

ELECTION OFFICIALS IN several U.S. states, as I write this, are still counting, re-counting, or hand-canvassing ballots to determine the winner of America's presidential election.

Totals in several counties in Florida jumped one way or another by hundreds of votes. Simply running the same ballots through the same counting machines produced the differences.

The American public may never know the exact totals each candidate won. The blame lies with obsolete voting machinery, some of which isn't even manufactured any more.

I used punch cards when I first learned programming in 1968. It's unbelievable to me that elections still depend on these cards, with rectangular punch holes (called chad) that often don't come all the way off.

Even in Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, The New York Times reported that 1 in 3,000 votes is counted incorrectly by counting machines. And this is after poll workers remove any loose chad they may see.

The new millennium is a perfect opportunity for those of us in the computer industry to create a more reliable vote-counting system, Windows-based or otherwise.

Of course, I'd never suggest that votes be counted using Windows. If you asked people, "Would you fly in a plane that was running on Windows?" most would say, "No."

But the United States sorely needs to modernize its elections because they invite suspicion of fraud. In New Mexico, more than 1,000 "damaged ballots" didn't go through the counting machines, and 252 early voting ballots were "missing." In Florida, a ballot box was found secreted in a hotel room.

Cuba even offered to send election observers to Florida to assure U.S. voters that their votes were being counted properly.

We geeks revolutionized global communications by creating the Internet. Now we have the opportunity to reinvent democracy.

Structures such as the Electoral College were developed for a primitive age. Inauguration Day used to be in March. This allowed one early president-elect the 17 days he needed just to ride from Boston to the capitol.

Today, totals that change every time you run a count are not acceptable. Using simple technology, we can have clean, fast election counts that revive the spirit of democracy.

I have a modest proposal that I believe the computer industry should work for.

So long, Electoral College. Leaders in all U.S. parties have called for a constitutional amendment to end the Electoral College and elect the president by popular vote. But you can't simply give the person with a plurality of votes the presidency. In a serious three-way race, a candidate with as little as 34 percent of the vote could win, cheating the majority.

Today's technology makes possible a simple solution called an instant run-off. Voters indicate their first, second, and third choices for president. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the weakest candidates are eliminated. Those voters' second or third choices are then counted.

This ensures that one candidate ultimately enjoys majority support. This system is already used in many other countries, including Australia since 1908. (See

The Democratic Party would benefit if Green Party voters could indicate a second choice. But the Republican Party would also benefit. The fast-growing Libertarian Party draws votes mainly away from Republicans. (LP candidates were elected to 22 local offices.) Allowing minor-party voters to indicate a second and third choice could help both Democrats and Republicans equally.

Hello, cheap terminals. Instead of relying upon 1950s punch-card technology, it's time for polling places to switch to inexpensive display terminals. These displays could be used as PC monitors in schools and libraries the other 364 days of the year.

Because we can't allow mysterious "black box" technology, each terminal would have to give each voter a final printed ballot. The voter could examine the printout before depositing it in a secure box. At the close of balloting, the electronic count from the terminals would be available immediately in each state. But in case of challenges, the paper ballots could be machine counted or hand counted as a backup. (Absentee ballots are already suitable for either machine or hand tabulation.)

All of the above changes require computer technology which, fortunately, is abundantly available today. Next week, I'll describe some ways new technology can reinvent democracy for the next millennium. Following that, I'll print the best reader comments I receive by Nov. 23.

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