Washington Post op-ed columnist and editorial board member Anne Applebaum made an illogical comparison between electronic voting machines and automated teller machines (ATMs), suggesting that because people trust ATMs -- often refusing the option of receipts -- there is no need for electronic voting machines to provide paper records. Applebaum's most recent Post column is not the first in which she has exhibited flawed reasoning and logic.
From Applebaum's November 17 column:
When the ATM asks whether I want a receipt, I usually say no. When a Web site wants my credit card number, I usually say yes. When I pay bills online, there is no paper record of the transaction. In my failure to demand physical evidence when money changes hands, I am not very unusual. Most Americans now conduct at least some of their financial transactions without paper, or at least sleep happily knowing that others do. Yet when it comes to voting -- a far simpler and more straightforward activity than electronic bank transfers -- we suddenly become positively 19th century in our need for a physical record. It is, if you think about it, quite inexplicable.
But it isn't at all “inexplicable.” Each of Applebaum's analogies is breathtakingly flawed. (1) ATMs offer receipts, while users of electronic voting machines have no such option. (2) Applebaum doesn't have to give a website her credit card number if she doesn't trust it, but has no similar choice to take her business elsewhere when it comes to electronic voting. Besides, there is a federal financial cap on consumer liability for credit card fraud. Where are the federal voting machine safeguards? (3) Finally, when Applebaum pays her bills online, it is highly likely, if not certain, that she is given the option of saving a confirmation number and printing a copy for her records. Whether or not she exercises that option, she would know the following month if her payment registered.
More from Applebaum's column:
Last weekend the New York Times published an editorial that found “no evidence” of vote fraud but called electronic voting “a problem” all the same. After all, the editorial noted, there is “no way to be sure” that votes weren't changed “by secret software” inside the machines. If you're tempted to believe that analysis is rational, just ask yourself this question: Are you really sure that your bank isn't using secret software to steal $9.72 from your retirement account every week? And if the answer is no, why aren't you up in arms about that, too?
As Daily Howler editor Bob Somerby pointed out in response:
Could any comparison be less apt? No, you probably haven't checked this week to see if your bank is stealing your money. But duh! The reason you haven't checked is obvious-banks provide extensive paper trails, and a major bank would quickly be caught if it swiped that nine bucks every week. (As anyone except a “journalist” would know, many Americans do check their bank statements quite religiously.) And duh! Let's note another fact which would be obvious to anyone outside Applebaum's tribe. Here it is: If banks were allowed to run audit-free systems, many banks would of course steal your money! Only a fool would fail to know it.
People are not “up in arms about that, too” because it's an absurd comparison. We have no way of verifying that electronic voting machines record our votes correctly, but we have many ways to verify that our banks aren't stealing from us. We know how much money we deposit, we know how much money we withdraw, we know how much interest we accrue, we get bank statements, et cetera. It's pretty simple, really: if there's less money in our accounts than there should be, we know the bank is stealing from us.
Back to Applebaum's November 17 column:
Given our reliance on computerized accounting, the explanation for the American paranoia about computer voting cannot be rational.
It is Applebaum's argument that is not rational. “Computerized accounting” can be verified and corrected. You can look at the ATM receipt you have the option of receiving. But even if you don't look at that, you will surely notice when hundreds of dollars go missing from your bank account. If nothing else, a few bounced rent checks will likely alert you to the problem. But how will you know when an electronic voting machine that doesn't give you a receipt has recorded your vote incorrectly?
Applebaum suggests that she would have absolutely no clue if her bank stole $500 from her each year. Presumably, many Americans quite rationally want to pay closer attention to how their vote is recorded than Applebaum pays to her checking account.
Applebaum's lack of interest in how her vote is recorded may stem from her lack of concern with whether voter fraud swings an election -- or from her apparent unwillingness to spend an extra day counting votes in order to ensure that the correct candidate gains office. From Applebaum's November 3 column:
The worst possible outcome [to the 2004 presidential campaign] would be, and will always be, a repeat of Florida 2000: lawyers, spin doctors, courts and protests that would drag out the result past last night. ... One disputed election [the 2000 presidential election] didn't destroy the majority's faith in that extended democratic process. But nor, arguably, would a few cases of voter fraud in Ohio yesterday, or a few examples of egregious voter suppression in Florida, however critical the districts in which they took place and however much they affected the result. Let's face it: If it's really that close, as it was in 2000, either candidate could plausibly be declared the victor. And the best outcome for the country would always be for the apparent loser to concede and for the nation to hand victory, quickly, to whoever the apparent winner might be. What would, over time, destroy the majority's faith in the process is a system in which every election was litigated or a system in which the result was regularly and doggedly disputed. [emphasis added]
Applebaum doesn't indicate who should decide on the “apparent” winner, if vote-counting doesn't make the winner clear on election night. Rather, she simply indicates that she wants a candidate to concede before her bedtime. To Applebaum, democracy is apparently something to be rushed through, rather than conducted correctly. Little wonder, then, that she doesn't mind her vote being crumpled up and thrown away like an ATM receipt.
Applebaum's recent columns about the 2004 presidential election are not the only testaments to the dubiousness of her claim on the Post's valuable op-ed real estate. MMFA noted earlier this year her odd review of Bill Clinton's memoirs. And on September 3, 2003, she devoted an entire 780-word column to the proliferation of acronyms, which, she warned ominously, “isn't exactly democratic.”