An American in Zürich on Election Night

On Tuesday night, I watched the election results in a friend's apartment here in Zürich, Switzerland. The party started late at night because of the time difference. Exit poll data didn't start coming out until around 11pm. It was a small party: two Americans, two Germans, an Irish, my Mexican wife Karla, and myself.

Being an American living abroad, I think this election had more impact on me than usual. Everyday I poured over the news. It became somewhat of an obsession. The race between John McCain and Barack Obama seemed to me like an archetypal battle between the old way of doing things and the new. I worried constantly that we would make the same mistake for a third time.

At 1:00 am, the first results came in. Kentucky was called for McCain. Indiana didn't seem very promising either. My heart sank. The party got a little bit less jovial. "Just wait, it's not over yet" I thought.

Back in 2004, I worked on the Academy Award winning documentary "Mighy Times: The Children's March," a film about the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Sitting in the editing suite and listening to the voices of Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy over and over, I gained a profound new respect for a struggle that African Americans have been fighting since the very beginning of this country. This election night had the potential to take a giant step forward in that struggle -- not only for African-Americans, but for the whole nation, just as MLK's "I have a dream" or Kennedy's Civil Rights Address did.

The hours went by. More results came in. States were called. Holograms were spoken to. Superfluous touch screens were used. Some of the few people left then decided to go home. When Ohio was called, we became happy again. Things were looking good.

Finally, at 5:00 am, the election was called for Barack Obama. Even though it was morning, we cracked a bottle of champagne to celebrate. Then we waited for his acceptance speech.

By the time he appeared, it was around 6:30 am. Only three of us remained. Seeing Barack Obama address the nation for the first time as President Elect was one of the most moving moments of my life. Karla and I held each other tight. When Obama thanked his children and his best friend, his wife Michelle, we held each other tighter. I was momentarily transported to an undisclosed time in the future. A future where Karla and I could tell our mixed-race children, without a shred of naivety or falsehood, that they could grow up to be President of the United States.

Back in the present, the three of us remaining had tears in our eyes. Things can be different. The status quo is not set in stone. "Change has come to America."

Why Electionic Voting Machines are a Dumb Idea.

As a general rule, I try to keep this blog focused on film, video and other media related items. However, with a week left before the election, I am making an exception because I have some things on my mind.

First on the list of things on my mind are electronic voting machines. Let me declare in annoying capital letters: THERE IS NO REASON TO USE ELECTRONIC VOTING MACHINES. The simple fact is that electronic voting machines only have one benefit over standard paper ballots; That is instant vote tabulation. However, as your mother probably told you, the fastest way is most likely not the best way of doing things.

This single benefit comes with A LOT of downsides (sorry for the caps again.) The first and most obvious downside is complexity. No one can argue that computers are not more complex that pieces of paper. When things are more complex, they are more prone to errors, malfunctions and are more difficult to use. We accept the complexity of computers in this modern world because the positive aspects outweigh the downside of complexity. Computers provide instant communication, access to all of the world's knowledge, unlimited entertainment, etc. An electronic voting machine's only benefit to counteract it's complexity is faster results. Totally not worth it.

The second problem with electronic voting machines is a direct result of the complexity of the system and that is transparency. When you vote on paper, you can physically see who you voted for. A computer is completely different however. Even if you push the correct buttons on a touch screen, you have no way of knowing for sure if that vote was recorded the same inside the machine. A paper vote is clearly readable by a human being and a computer. An electronic vote is just a bunch of magnetic disturbances on a shiny disk inside a machine. That sure instills voter confidence.

The last problem with electronic voter machines comes from E-voting manufacturers trying the overcome the problem of transparency. This is where it gets ridiculous. Some e-voting machines, like the ones being used in West Virginia, have a paper roll under glass next to the voting machine. This roll prints a confirmation of the vote that is made. The voter is supposed to double check that the vote on the paper matches what they entered on the screen to verify their vote. This is ridiculous on so many levels. First, you still have no idea what the machine actually recorded. It is perfectly possible to record one vote and print another. Unless the differences between the machine and the paper are way off, no one is going to go through each vote by hand. The second and most ridculous part of this is how it completely turns the logic of voting on its head. Follow me here: With standard paper ballots, the voter marks their vote on a piece of paper, which is then read by a machine and counted. If there are any problems, humans recount the paper by hand. With e-voing, you enter your vote on a touch screen, which is then printed out as confirmation on paper. If there are problems, humans recount the paper by hand. See how stupid that is? You are basically having a machine generate a piece of paper instead of making one your self. It seems like a completely harebrained workaround that is easily solved by sticking with the old system -- paper ballots. Just because something is new and high-tech doesn't mean you have to use it.

So, with all these problems, why would any government decide to go with these stupid machines? I can think of two reasons. The first reason is money. Basically, some company makes voting machines and they convince the government to use tax dollars to by them. The manufacturers makes tons of cash and the government can feel like they are cutting edge. The second reason is far more nefarious, and that is voter fraud. The fact is, it is far easier to commit voter fraud with electronic voting machines, because they are complex and opaque systems. Anyone pushing electronic voting machines needs to have their motives looked at very closely.

So for all you people stuck using electronic voting machines, I am sorry. Your vote may have gone into a black hole, never to return.

Here is a very scary video showing how easy it is to hack a voting machine like the ones used in Ohio in 2000:

And here is a video of a voting machine in West Virginia malfunctioning even after it has been "Calibrated":

There will probably be a few more political rants here before the week is over.