Machine Politics

If we’re designing a new voting device, shouldn’t it have a cup holder?

Amy Wilentz is the author of “Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier” and the novel “Martyrs’ Crossing.” She is at work on a book about the recall and California.

21 September 2003
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2003 The Los Angeles Times

By Amy Wilentz

I’m an admirer of those three judges at the 9th Circuit, but still, when I heard about their decision to postpone the recall election, I wanted to retire to my stuffy, squirrel-infested attic for six months and sit on boxes of clothes for 8-year-olds and languish among my great-grandmother’s lace guest towels. I need a place where there is no television and no NPR, and where my husband is exceedingly unlikely to bring the newspapers because the ladder that goes up there is rickety, and that’s a nice word for it.

This is not to say I’m sick of the recall election. In fact, I love the recall election. It has added a zest and spark to my life in California (I’m a new arrival) that was lacking when life consisted only of unpacking large duffels filled with things I never wanted to see again. In all my born days I never thought I would care to know the ins and outs of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s past, but I do. Never did I think I would find a person like Cruz Bustamante a figure of some fascination, but I do. Who would imagine that someone who looks like my dentist in Perth Amboy, N.J., would be putting on the mantle of Cesar Chavez and — and — taking gambling money from tribal casino interests?

But the esteemed judges have led me to contemplate another important issue, and that is something called “voter behavior.” (“Voter” behavior is not unlike “human” behavior, in that most voters are human.) Let’s not forget, first of all, that California’s electoral officers have to rejigger the alphabet for the election because voters simply give 5% more of their votes to the first person on the ballot, no matter who it is. True: That is what voters do with their priceless franchise. It’s costing something like $7 million for California to overcome this aspect of voter behavior in an election with 80 Assembly districts and 135 candidates.

Another part of voter behavior is that voters sometimes will vote for someone like Schwarzenegger simply because he is willing to admit to Oprah that he makes his kids do their own homework and their own laundry (this is part of Hollywood’s sinister just-like-the-rest-of-us campaign). The only difference between Arnold and the rest of us is that while we stick up a Post-It saying “Gabe — do your laundry!!!!” Arnold and his wife, Maria Shriver, put up signs “all over the house” telling the staff not to touch the kids’ dirty clothes.

The three judges have alleged that the hanging-chad voting machines used in six California counties have a tendency to miscount the vote (viz. Florida, 2000), and that using such machines could disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters. Given the tendency of the voter just to go for the lazy man’s choice, I’m not sure how much one should care about those thousands of lost votes, or for that matter, for the Beloved Franchise itself, for which our Ancestors Fought and Died. It is hard to imagine those same voters — for whom the alphabet must be reinvented — going to the polling place March 2 and having to vote in the presidential primary as well as the recall. They’ll all require psychotropic drugs afterward, to pull them from the throes of such heavy intellectual endeavor.

You can understand why I need time up in my attic. I’ll be designing the perfect California voting machine. Having turned my thoughts for many weeks upon this important subject and maturely weighed the several schemes of others, I have found them all grossly mistaken in their arguments.

First of all, no one so far has mentioned a cup holder. My machine will have a cup holder and subdued decor in earth tones. It will include a beverage machine. It will allow all voters to vote, with impartiality to all and no chads. After you close the curtains behind you, you will find yourself facing a Spanish- and English-speaking, karmically programmed “bot,” or thinking machine. You will be able to access it from both the corpse and the downward dog positions (you may have to use your toes). At the touch of a finger — or toe — you will call up windows including various facts about the candidate (like the back of a Beatles trading card): favorite color, favorite song, pet’s name, filmography, real estate holdings, taxes paid in last two years (if more than $800), campaign donors, celebrity endorsements, number of appearances on the Leno show, number of marriages (with a link to a bio of each former or current spouse), spiritual leader. Recent news reports have shown these categories to be subjects the voters care about.

There will also be a 360-degree virtual tour of each candidate’s closet. This includes all those who appear on the recall ballot: not only Gov. Gray Davis and Lt. Gov. Bustamante, but also Mary Carey, Angelyne and Trek Thunder Kelly (a performance artist and candidate whose platform is based on his having worn only the color blue for the past couple of years). Spouses’ closets will be off limits, though naturally one would like to see how many navy blue jackets with brass buttons Sharon Davis owns. There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, in that, on its touch-sensitive screen, the voting bot will have an image of each candidate’s most telling physical feature. For Arianna: her hair. For Camejo: his glasses. For the governor, his neck and collar. For the lieutenant governor, his neck and collar. For McClintock, those piercing eyes. For Arnold, Maria. Whichever feature your eyes fix on, the machine will take that into account as a percentage of your choice.

A very worthy person, a true lover of the state of California whose judgment I highly esteem, was recently pleased in discussing this matter to offer a refinement upon my scheme. The machine, she said, must also factor in which beverage you selected when you entered: chai, double tall percent latte, bubbly water, Evian, or a double whiskey straight up — in much the same way that corporate pollsters, when trying to understand the market for their magazine or their car, will ask you which magazine you think of when you think of a Mini Cooper, or which car you think of when you think of the New Yorker. Indeed, the machine, as my worthy friend and I have conceived it, will be more like a pollster than a calculator.

In the end, when the voter finally finishes his whiskey and reluctantly presses a button for one recall candidate or another, our machine will also take that into account. But only to some extent. Our machine will “weight” the votes according to the reality it perceives. Therefore, it is entirely possible that all votes for the recall will be changed to votes against the recall, and vice versa.

In the last analysis, the bot will cast your vote for whomever it believes you really want to vote for, karmically and in your heart. This has one further advantage: that it will obviate the need for recalls in the future, because the machine will choose the candidate the voters really want. Clearly the voters were incapable of doing so in the last conventional election, when they were allowed to vote for the candidate they thought they wanted — but then discovered, upon being asked to sign a piece of paper outside a supermarket, that they didn’t want that person anymore.

Karmic bot programming will eliminate such an eventuality. My worthy friend and I are taking suggestions for a name for the California voting bot. (“Terminator” is not an alternative.)