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Will George

Voters' Obligations

By George F. Will
Thursday, October 21, 2004; Page A29

The campaign is culminating with reckless charges about the possibility -- actually, the certainty; such is life -- that there will be imperfections in recording perhaps 110 million votes. The charges are couched in the language of liberalism: much talk about voters' rights, no talk about voters' responsibilities and dark warnings of victimization -- "disenfranchisement" and "intimidation."

Consider punch-card voting systems, and "overvotes" and "undervotes." Overvoting occurs when voters mark their ballots for two candidates for a single office. Undervoting occurs when voters do not mark a choice among the candidates for an office.

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Only 12.4 percent of America's registered voters live in jurisdictions that use punch-card systems of the sort that Florida made infamous in 2000. But 72 percent of Ohioans do. On Sunday the Columbus Dispatch reported, beneath the headline "Punch Cards May Hurt Blacks," that such ballots cast with no vote recorded for president were in 2000 a higher percentage in black communities (about 5 percent) than in other communities (less than 2 percent).

The state is being sued over "racial disparities" resulting from punch-card voting in three counties. However, the Dispatch reports several scholars' assertions that race is not the salient variable. Higher levels of unrecorded presidential preferences supposedly correlate with low levels of income and education, appearing also in the predominantly white Appalachian counties of southeastern Ohio.

Punch cards, the Dispatch says, are "prone" to overvotes and undervotes "because so many things can go wrong." For example, if "voters do not correctly insert the card into the voting device, the wrong holes can be punched." But is it unreasonable to expect voters to perform those simple manipulations? Are they victims -- disenfranchised -- if they do not? Surely not in Ohio, where printed guides to punch-card voting are supplemented by instructional videos on the Internet and where instructions and instructors will be available at polling places.

Granted, punch-card systems, like everything else in life, are not infallible. They can -- remember Florida's hanging and dimpled (aka pregnant) chads? -- inadequately record the intent of a voter, particularly one who is careless about the task of handling the simple punch-card mechanism. But how can punch cards be blamed for overvotes?

And how does invalidating such a vote constitute, as is now commonly said, "disenfranchisement"? When poll taxes, meretricious literacy tests, hostile sheriffs and mobs stood between blacks and ballots, blacks were disenfranchised. To be disenfranchised is to have something done to you, not to do something to yourself.

Regarding undervotes, voters can always check to make sure they have clearly punched holes. Furthermore, they have a right -- and are often right to exercise the right -- to undervote by skipping certain choices on the ballot.

In some Florida jurisdictions this year, electronic touch-screen voting machines will react irritably to undervotes. If a voter skips a choice on the ballot, a message -- e.g., "You have not made a choice on this race" -- appears on the screen three times. What more must be done to deal with the undervote problem -- which often is not a problem but a sensible preference?

Should there be more severe prompts? The first might be: "I'm just a machine, but shouldn't you be marking more boxes?" The second might be: "Hey, dolt -- yes, you: The right to vote is precious, so even though you neither know nor care about a particular contest on the ballot, vote for someone -- anyone -- even if your vote is random." Finally, the machine could threaten: "Cast more votes or you will wake up with a horse's head in your bed."

Would such growls from voting machines satisfy liberals that an undervote need not represent either a remediable flaw in the voter or in the technology? Can liberals accept that an undervote usually reflects either voter carelessness, for which the voter suffers the condign punishment of an unrecorded preference, or reflects the voter's choice not to express a preference? No, otherwise they would not be liberals: obsessive about rights, blind to responsibilities.

On Monday a Colorado judge upheld a new requirement that voters are responsible for producing identification before being allowed to vote. And Florida's Supreme Court rejected the argument that voters are disenfranchised when provisional ballots they cast in the wrong precincts are not counted.

Imagine that: Voters are responsible for proving who they are and knowing where they are supposed to vote. There will be charges that both rulings permit "intimidation," which in today's liberal lexicon is a synonym for linking rights to responsibilities.

georgewill@washpost.com


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