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Voting Exhibit Stuffed With Election History

Thursday, September 23, 2004; 2:25 PM

From the security checkpoint at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, the giant map on the floor up ahead looks like it was colored in by a hyperactive child with oversized crayons. But closer in, the obsessive detail of the exhibit snaps into focus as the riot of hues shows itself for what it is -- a color-coded depiction of the voting technology used by every county in the nation.

Some states are monochromatic. All-purple Nevada shows that voters throughout the state will record their ballots electronically in November. Texas, meanwhile, is a pastiche of colors -- orange for paper ballots, red for pre-scored punch card and yellow for "mixed," among others.

The map is the centerpiece and stepping-off point for a new exhibit on voting inspired by the flap over the 2000 Florida recount and the current hand-wringing over the rise of electronic voting.

Exhibit curator Larry Bird said the museum has put on voting exhibits at "moments" in history. The last such moment was in 1971, when Congress approved the 26th Amendment, giving draft-age teens and 20-year-olds the right to vote.

"The story there was on voting rights or the acquisition of voting rights by new groups of people throughout history, and the machines were put out along with paper ballots and the slot-top boxes, but the social story was in the foreground," Bird said.

Now the story is the technology, he said, "so we put the machinery in the foreground with the social story running in the background."

With the exception of the map, the top attraction of the modest exhibit is a voting machine, complete with the infamous "butterfly ballot," donated to the museum by election officials in Palm Beach County, Fla. The Plexiglas barrier protecting the machine is smudged where people have pressed their noses up against it to get a closer look.

The punch ballot for the 2000 election was arranged so that voters selected a vote for the Bush-Cheney ticket by punching out the first hole on the ballot, but voted for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman by punching the third hole. Punching the second hole yielded a vote for Pat Buchanan and the Reform Party listed on the opposite page. In 2001, the Palm Beach Post reported that its analysis showed the ballot design cost Al Gore 6,607 votes in a state that George W. Bush won by only 537 votes, and whose 25 electoral votes decided the presidential election.

"It's sort of interesting, you can stand here and watch people's reactions," Bird said "You can pretty much guess where they are on the political spectrum. Some people come in and go, 'Well, I don't see what the problem is.' Or people come in and go, 'Oh ... oh my God,'" Bird said.

Other aspects of the exhibit aren't so politically loaded. Thousand-pound voting machines that use a series of gears and levers to record choices sit alongside rudimentary lockboxes and other contraptions used throughout U.S. history.

The exhibit makes one thing pretty clear: Trouble with voting technology is hardly a new phenomenon. One exhibit that museum visitors can touch and manipulate is a replica of a ballot box used in the 1800s. The apparently simple box has a cleverly concealed false bottom, where ballot stuffers could log votes for their candidate.

The exhibit is filled with similar examples of how parties and partisans have tried to fool the voting process throughout the history of the American vote.

"All of these systems have their Achilles' heel," Bird said. "People ask me, 'Well, why isn't there one system?' ... I think having a single system would make it much easier to game."

The exhibit will run at least through the end of January.

-- By David McGuire, washingtonpost.com Staff Writer

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