American presidential elections never really end anymore. Over in Tampa, they were still hand-feeding ballots into some resistant optical scanners late last week. In Manatee County, voting machines spit out 50,000 ballots, refusing to count them. Poll watchers complained about incorrectly programmed voting machines in Kansas that flipped candidates. Wrongly purged voting records, touchscreen flip-flops, missing absentee ballots — they were all there.
Still, the election of 2008 was relatively glitch-free.
"Easy day at Diamond View Elementary. Polls set up in the school library, voters trickle in, but mostly the half-dozen poll workers had little to complain about during this endless workday.
"Mostly, that is, until the polls close at 7. Precinct clerk Susan Mary Carignan, a formidable Bostonian Irishwoman, has been up since 4 a.m.; she's rolled out the humongous metal cabinets holding procedural instructions, unfolded the collapsible polling booths, arranged ballots, plugged in optical scanners, answered inane questions from poll workers, soothed anxious voters, and now she's so tired she's staggering. A deep-red flush has crept up her enormous arms and suffused her face; beads of sweat collect under her dust-colored curls. Carignan has been working the polls for four years, but she's never seen anything like this — those new optical scanners that were supposed to make everything so painless. Hah! At the end of the day, you have to sort andcount every paper ballot by hand.
"Horrified poll workers freeze.
" 'Did you just tell us to count these ballots?' one disbelieving, gray-haired matron stutters, pointing to a disheveled, chin-high mountain of paper.
"With the old touchscreen system, you just closed up the machines and went home.
"Affirmative, Carignan responds. And once they're sorted into piles and counted, you have to match the hand-counted tallies to the scanner tallies to the voter tallies. It's like these exhausted elderly volunteers have been instructed to complete an SAT math test at the end of a 16-hour workday. A chaos bomb has dropped: Suddenly, the orderly room is in turmoil. Somebody has accidentally locked one of the metal cabinets in a back room: Call the custodian! But don't let the custodian touch those ballots — it's illegal! The precious zipper bag with the key to the imprisoned metal cabinet has also disappeared. Some helpful helper is on the verge of tossing tally receipts into the trash; very important scraps of paper with written voter totals are nowhere to be found. Where are the pens? Who buried the important blue boxes under piles of miscellaneous junk? Isn't it time to move all the tables in the room from one side of the library to the other? Does this extension cord go to the coffee pot?
"An hour later, Carignan's high color has gone from crimson to deep purple as she pounds on the keys to her calculator. 'Shit!' she mutters. 'I mean, shoot!' Somebody is dragging the clanging metal 'VOTE' sign around the room. In two and a half hours, Obama will deliver his acceptance speech. But the counts on these damned — I mean darned — ballots still don't match up."