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US Elections: Two horses win six-legged race

Missing my usual flutter on the Melbourne Cup on November 7, I took a bob each way on the Presidents Cup instead. Three green Tic Tacs still await their fate, bet recklessly on George Bush winning as I sat with my fellow Alameda County vote counters last night, fanning through wads of punch cards looking for chads. And 50c went into a newspaper dispenser this morning in the expectation that in years to come an early edition of the Oakland Tribune with the headline "It's George W" will finance my retirement, should the headline turn out to be an historical curiosity.

Not having a vote I had no idea what to expect when I turned up at the Election Count Center at 8pm on election night. I'd already been extremely surprised that election results for the east coast were being announced hours before the polls on the west coast closed. Just before leaving for the Little Theater where the vote count was going to take place I caught a snippet of Dan Rather on CBS saying they were reversing their earlier announcement that Gore had won Florida.

At the counting house we had no tv or radio coverage apart from an occasional announcement from the member of the Grand Jury who was overseeing the vote count process. He had a radio with earplugs and would occasionally tell us how many electoral college votes each had. But really the most gripping part of the night was in mastering the technique of using our county issue strawberry hullers to remove the little squares of card not fully punched out by some voters when they put it in the Votomatic machine. We only removed the chad if it hung by one corner - anything else had to be smoothed down so it didn't jam the card reader machine and on the assumption that the voter had not intended it to be fully punched out.

Punched cards! I ask you! Having seen on earlier news bulletins the huge forms the people counting absentee votes were dealing with I'd expected something similar. Instead I was transported back to my days of sitting at an IBM029 card punch machine at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in 1972 where I operated a computer terminal that took up half a floor and consisted of a teleprinter, a card sorter and a card reader.

Punched cards! America deserves better than this. A billion dollars was spent on this election to puff up the egos of a handful of people but it doesn't look like anyone's spent a dollar since the 1970s on improving the voting system. No wonder people stay away in droves. On the morning of the election a co-worker said she went to vote and there was just one retired person at her polling place, bravely trying to check everyone's ID and get them their voting forms with a huge line of people in a hurry to get to work standing there fuming.

Not all counties use the punch card system. A couple working next to me counting votes said the neghbouring county they live in uses paper ballots that you write on. They were county employees persuaded to 'volunteer' on election night. I'd seen a flyer in the City Clerk's office and signed up to work 8pm till midnight for $30, but it's so hard to get election workers that more than half of the 20 people working there were volunteered by the county.

It's now Wednesday evening here and I watched a whole hour bulletin of the local news and saw not one mention of whether Nader got his crucial 5 percent vote, but they devoted at least 5 minutes to replaying CNN's pushme-pullyou coverage as election night unfolded. Other election stories included a controversy in Washington State over the form that one county used which allegedly confused voters into punching the hole for Pat Buchanan, thinking they were voting for Al Gore. There's a call for a recount there too.

People in the South Bay voted by 70 percent to pay an extra 1/2 cent sales tax to bring Bay Area Rapid Transit to San Jose - easily achieving the 66 2/3 percent required after the local authority turned the extension idea down. And in Mendocino County a measure put on the ballot by a petition signed even by the local sheriff was passed, allowing people to grow marijuana for personal use. Unfortunately the same sheriff will still have to enforce the state and federal laws, which prohibit it.

The school voucher initiative was roundly trounced despite (or because of) the almost non-stop litany of children's voices saying "38 Yes, 38 Yes" on the radio. If there isn't a law about exploiting children during a political campaign then there should be. Nine of the 11 San Francisco supervisor races produced nobody with 50 percent of the vote as required by law, so in a month's time there'll be run-off elections between the two top contenders in each district.

The San Francisco mayor, Willie Brown, wasn't up for election at this time but he sure had plenty to say about the presidential election. He was furious at Al Gore for not using Bill Clinton in his political campaign. "The referendum for Clinton", Brown said, was the New York senate race where Hillary "won handsomely" with her cheating husband and all the negatives he supposedly represented at her side. Clinton came belatedly to the Bay Area last week attracting huge crowds, and he also taped a phone message asking people to vote no on school vouchers.

The day before the election a similar strategy was used with an automatic dial-up of voters imploring them to vote Democratic, recorded by the distant Al Gore. Judging from the close result in Florida I guess he was right to spend his time over there instead of here in California where he won with ease, but it's just another negative in the public mind in respect of the electoral college system. It forces candidates to campaign in a handful of toss-up states instead of across the country.

And if Gore, who's won the popular vote, doesn't also win the electoral college vote - and thus does not become President - I'd say this century will see a mighty shake-up in the way American democracy operates.

Lea Barker
Wednesday November 8 (PT)

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