O, America . . .

Reflections on Election Day, 2004


Sante Fe, New Mexico, 1 p.m.

My parents didn't know each other when George McGovern ran for president in 1972. But from their separate corners of town, they logged endless volunteer hours to help elect McGovern, the man they believed would take the nation to a better place. And then he lost. So Richard Nixon became president and my parents had two kids, bought a minivan and drove their kids to soccer practice. Life in Orange County was as non-political as you could get. Then President George W. Bush wanted to be president, again. My parents drove for 13 hours to the swing state of New Mexico. Within days of their arrival, they were put to work doing fantastically mundane things like phone banking and labeling. Still, as the last weekend before the election neared, I wanted to see what it was all about. I jumped on a red-eye and met up with my folks in time for the last Santa Fe rally. Bill Clinton and Teresa Heinz were there. And so was a crowd of 8,000 hungry Clinton fans and Kerry supporters. It was a crazy, wonderful gathering, and within two hours of opening the gates, they knocked down the barricades we put up and rushed the "reserved" seating areas. It was like a rock concert with less drinking and a milder mosh pit. People climbed trees, traffic lights and one another to get a better look at their beloved Bill and, now, Teresa. But the most amazing part was to see my previously non-political parents, carrying signs and sporting buttons, completely immersed in the energy and hope. (Valerie Howard)


Seal Beach, 2 p.m.

At Grace Community Church, a middle-aged woman in semi-obscene spandex shorts stands outside, bending the ear of a noticeably uninterested young man. "You know he cheated in 2000," she said. "Gas is $2.50 here, but it's under $2 in Texas." When the woman's elderly mother finished voting inside, Ms. Spandex asks, "Did you get your sticker?" Mom hadn't, so they both go back inside to get her sticker from the voting official. "She's 80," the daughter tells the official. "I'm not stupid," her mother shoots back. "I didn't say you were stupid. I said you were 80. That's why you don't have any socks on." (Rex Reason)


Rossmoor, 3 p.m.

In the emerging age of electronic voting and paperless totals, how do we know whether every vote gets counted? Veteran Orange County poll worker Nia Hartman has been asking that since she was an inspector during the county's first official electronic-ballot election last March. "The hardware is impressive," she says at the Rossmoor polling site she's overseeing. "But how do we verify all this?" Hartman is an electrical engineer and a computer consultant with a strong background in operating systems and a mind that seems to generate the question "What if?" "What if there's a computer failure, vandalism, an electronic glitch, a hacker incident or a lost JBC [the Judges Booth Controller, better known as "black box," which electronically stores the totals]. Where's the paper backup? Where are the checks and balances?" Hartman's concerns are nothing new. There has been a growing outcry against the E-voting systems. Critics have agitated for, at the very least, a simple ballot receipt given to each voter. "It's really a very simple modification that would accomplish this," she says. "It could be generated right out of the E-Slate machines in the booths. We provided very similar voting machines to the Afghanis in their recent election, and they were able to get a printout of their individual totals using our machines we sent over there. Are we any less deserving an electorate than the Afganis?" But county registrar spokesman Brett Rowely simply waves off any need for paper backup. "We do logic and accuracy testing," he says. "We do parallel monitoring. We have police presence at all collection points and at our central voting-tabulation facility to insure the security of the process. We could print out exactly what they see at the polling site. But frankly, we just don't see the need or expense to generate more paper." But Hartman believes that as long as people are running elections, there's always going to be margin for error or fraud. "I can only see as far as I can see," she says. "Beyond that, like a lot of Americans I know, my threshold for trust gets a little thin. You wouldn't leave the grocery store or the ATM without a receipt. Is your vote any less valuable?" (John Underwood)


Anaheim, 4 p.m.

Hardhatted Pick Your Part employee Frank Reynoso had all Election Day to ponder life's big questions—Does God exist? Does Bush exist? Did his vote really count?—inside his cinderblock booth at the entrance to the junkyard. He was sure of Bush; sure of God; but not so sure his vote, which he cast by computer promptly at 7 that morning, would reach its destination. "In the computer, anyone can get to it," Reynoso said, his orange work shirt clashing spectacularly with his yellow helmet as he admonished me to wear closed-toed shoes, which I already was. Voting with the computer was as easy as dismantling a 1986 Buick Regal, according to Reynoso. Make a mistake and just hit the red button to fix it. Old people, he said, were the only ones having trouble. But did he really think someone was messing with the votes? "I think there's something going on," he said, mentioning the mess in Ohio where some voting machines had more than 1,000 votes already on them before the polls opened. His biggest peeve, other than being a small cog in a mighty wheel, was the sticker. "They didn't give me a sticker," Reynoso lamented, eyeing mine. "They didn't have any." (Theo Douglas)

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