I marked my first ballot as an eligible voter 50 years ago in a booth at a fire station in Lawrence, where I was a student at KU. Among those on that ballot were vice-president Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee for president, and the Republican Richard Nixon, who would win.
The Kansas part of that ballot included incumbent Gov. Robert Docking, a Democrat running for reelection. His challenger was Republican Rick Harman. Docking would be reelected, and again in 1970 and ‘72 and was the last governor to serve a two-year term. (In 1974, the terms of the governor and other constitutional officers were changed to four years, with the governor limited to two successive terms.)
Voting in those days was not difficult. At age 21, citizens were allowed to register, usually at the court house. All voters but absentees went to the polls on election day; advance voting, the mail ballot, voting at age 18 and other reforms would come – some soon, others later.
The act was not complicated: a soft-lead pencil, an X in a box, the marked ballot dropped through the slot in a metal or wood box and walk out the door.
Reporters in those days were sent to the court house to observe as precinct votes were counted and recorded; they telephoned early results to newspapers and radio stations. The quick triggers of television news would arrive in a few years, and with them the exit poll, the early call (sometimes too early) for “presumed” winners. By mid-night or before, nearly all votes were counted.
An X always marked the vote, counted and counted again by hand and eye, and later again at the official canvass, for good. The process fundamental to our elections has been built on the keen eye, steady hand, and unwavering impartial vigilance of volunteers at the polling place.
For decade upon decade, voting in Kansas was as clean and smooth as humanly possible – the operative word, humanly. And we have always believed the people in charge to be scrupulous.
But somehow this has begun to go sideways. The pencil, the X, the counting, the reliability of tallies, the results, all of it in question these days.
Trouble was incubated, in part, when electronic voting became the rage and the paper ballot an object of modernist ridicule, too old-fashioned, too slow. The people who made electric voting machines rolled into a town, headed to the court house and furled the canvass at the back of the wagon. As folks and their commissioners gathered ‘round, the barkers began the pitch for their new machines.
It took only a moment to make the first sale, and less than that for hackers to crack the product code.
In the next moment, a demagogue came riding over the plains red-eyed and white-robed, shouting fear and loathing for the great bugbear of voter fraud, a monstrous vision, of thousands of aliens – dark skinned in the land of the white – swarming into our polling places to cast illegal ballots. (For whom, exactly, it was never said.)
As Kris Kobach preached his mythical fears, and electronic voting sparked and spluttered into the first enfeebled elections, the people’s suspicions grew. The trust of generations had built steadily with the commitment and competence of preceding chief election officers – Secretaries of State Paul and Elwill Shanahan, Jack Brier, Bill Graves and Ron Thornburgh. Now it had begun to crack. The hokum and babble of a Secretary-pretender, the digital snake oil of circuit-riding gadget peddlers, had climbed through the mists of doubt and into the minds of citizens and into their polling places.
For some reason we had bought the fear that Mexicans were about to elect the next governor; we fell for the sales pitch that a fast-digital election with even faster results would give us the quick democracy we have been told to crave.
Instead, we have new lines of suspicion.
Voter fraud has been exposed as myth. The true problem is voter absence. Our high-riding knight of the prairie has purged tens of thousands of eligible Kansas voters from the rolls. He continues to stall their reinstatement and jam the process for others who would register.
The great salvation of digital voting has become an invitation to computer hacking – of registrations, of voting process, of the vote itself.
Not even the electronic “paper ballot” is secure; a sheet presented as paper, facsimile of the electronic vote as a paper ballot, is illusory. It may look like a voter’s marked ballot, but the obscure bar code at the bottom is what’s read by a computer. And the ballot bar code is snack food for the digital manipulator.
At the time I marked that ballot in my first election 11 different governors and ten presidents ago, my and others’ faith in the voting process was inborn and unaffected. But over the years we became complacent about our lives, our democracy, our ethics. Data-driven digital, the on-screen flash and color, the zippy cartoons, the speed of it all, provoked a digital hypnosis.
We were hooked, susceptible to the pitch to get with it, to be “modern,” to replace our clunkers with something slick and efficient, something that saves time and money. Something fun, even.
But slicker is not always better, and sleek can wind up costing a fortune and its improvements, more fortunes. And in the end, corrupted elections or even the worry of them are no fun.
Our founding fathers put pen to the paper of documents that charted the course for our republic. Those papers cannot be lost or manipulated in the nether regions of cyberspace.
We should insist on no less for our ballots.