Critical Essay--The Fall of the Voting Machines: Technology and the 2006 FL-13 Congressional Election

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James Janack, Eckerd College


Abstract:

This essay considers cultural attitudes toward technology and how those attitudes are expressed in the popular press.  It offers a rhetorical analysis of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s coverage of Florida’s disputed 13th Congressional District election in 2006.  Democrat Christine Jennings sued for a re-vote, contending “pervasive malfunctioning” of the electronic touch-screen voting machines.  Analysis of the newspaper’s coverage between November 2006 and August 2007 reveals that the reporting implicitly expressed a suspicion of the role of technology while explicitly reporting that there were no technological causes for the unusually high undervote (lack of recorded votes).  The articles constructed a narrative that portrayed humans as absent or passive and the machines as the active agents who victimized the citizens of Sarasota County.


“Virtually from the beginning, we humans have carried on a love-hate relationship with the tools we have made.” (Rushing and Frentz 61).

It has been twenty years since Janice Hocker Rushing and Thomas S. Frentz wrote those words in their analysis of the portrayal of technology in the films Rocky IV, The Terminator, and Blade Runner.  In the intervening years, the love-hate relationship noted by Rushing and Frentz has remained and perhaps even intensified.  Not only has Hollywood produced two more Rocky films, three more Terminator films, three Matrix films, and dozens of other celluloid commentaries on technology, but Americans have come to rely on technology in our everyday lives more and more fully while we continue to complain about it.  Virtually everyone in the U.S.A. owns a cell phone though spotty service, outrageous bills, and inappropriate public use frustrate us.  With the explosion of the Internet over the last 10 years, we have become increasingly dependent on personal computers, though we curse viruses, spyware, and phishing.  In the U.S. we have experienced the tech boom and the tech bust.  Our fear and love of technology persists through it all.  Indeed, scholars have warned us about technology for years while our popular culture has urged us to embrace it (see Ellul, The Technological Society; Ellul, The Technological Bluff; Florman; Linstone and Mitroff; Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon; Zerzan and Carnes).

This essay considers one recent case of an extended discussion of technology.  Rather than consider portrayals in mythic films, as Rushing and Frentz so ably did, the focus of this analysis is on the popular press and its treatment of a real-life controversy.  Specifically, this essay analyzes the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s coverage of the contested election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District in 2006.  Technology became a central issue in the Herald-Tribune’s coverage because Sarasota County conducted the election on touch-screen voting machines.  The reliability of the machines became an issue when Democrat Christine Jennings contested the results of the election and contended that malfunctioning technology contributed to a large undervote (the absence of a recorded vote on a ballot) and the subsequent election of her opponent, Republican Vern Buchanan.  When suspicion of technology surfaces in the context of the electoral process, that suspicion may lead to concerns about the legitimacy of elections and the democratic process as a whole.  The way the popular press discusses voting technology can raise questions not only about our relationship with technology generally, but about the legitimacy of democratic culture.

In this essay, I do not seek to find the “true” cause of the undervote.  Nor do I seek to draw conclusions about how well the touch-screen voting machines worked or how elections ought to be conducted.  Instead, I hope to demonstrate through rhetorical analysis how the newspaper coverage of the election both reflected and perpetuated a culture of suspicion about technology. 

Newspaper coverage of technology-related phenomena is a good source for exploring cultural assumptions and attitudes toward technology because journalism is popularly perceived as “objective.”  People often assume that newspapers present the “facts” straightforwardly, without bias or agenda.  However, like John Fiske, I consider news reporting to be an ideological practice.  Embedded in the news are values and assumptions about how the world ought to be.  As Julia Eklund Koza, also citing Fiske, has noted, “a myth of objectivity tends to obscure the ideological intent of such reporting” (68).  Fiske has argued that generic conventions in news reporting work “to control and limit the meanings of the events it conveys” (282).1  News is often related as a narrative of a disruption to the preferred norm, complete with heroes, villains, and victims, and a resolution in which the norm is restored.  Media’s framing function (i.e. language use, content selection, and story structure) can be especially influential in the formation of public attitudes and assumptions (see Gitlin and Goffman).  This is especially true when new technologies start becoming popularized.  Brian Cogan, citing Carolyn Marvin, has argued that technological change “does not merely come as a result of interpersonal relationships and complex social webs or even simple preference for the apparent advantages of new technologies, but is a complex process that often involves negotiations between people, older and already established forms of mass media, and new technological forms,” and that the print media have “always had a unique and enormously influential role in the dissemination of new technologies into the American consciousness” (249).  Cogan’s analysis of news reporting on the personal computer in the 1980s found that the frames used were “almost universally positive and emphasized the positive aspects of the personal computer to the almost-total exclusion of the negative” (251).  In his analysis of popular press accounts of nanoscience, Brenton Faber has argued that “popular media coverage influences the ways the general public perceives” science and technology (144).  In his study, he found that print media engaged in a social-rhetorical process that helped to legitimize nanotechnology in public perception (158).  In contrast to these positive framings of technology, David Card and Enrico Moretti have maintained that a “distrust in electronic voting is shared by the mainstream press… and is substantiated by peer-reviewed academic studies” (672).  In the case of technology, news reporting both reflects and perpetuates American attitudes, and those attitudes are markedly ambivalent. 

This essay seeks to contribute to the scholarly conversation about popular press treatments of new technology.  I argue that the writing in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune (Sarasota H-T) coverage expressed a suspicion of technology by constructing humans as passive and/or absent agents and creating a narrative that portrayed the machines as the active agents victimizing the inhabitants of Sarasota County.  It did so at the same time that it published clear statements that the technology was not found to be at fault.  I do not wish to suggest that there is a simple, linear, causal relationship between the Herald-Tribune’s coverage and attitudes toward technology in the Sarasota area.  Persuasion does not often work that simply, especially persuasion that is present in “objective” sources like newspapers. The Sarasota H-T’s coverage acts as what Michel Foucault might call a statement in a discursive formation, a formation that has already existed for a long time, as Rushing and Frentz argued.  It is a formation that maintains a simultaneous love and suspicion of technology, but like all such formations needs regular reinforcement.  The Sarasota H-T’s coverage acted as one statement among many that express a fascination with and suspicion of technology. This essay focuses on how, when taken together, many of the articles devoted to the controversy implicitly created a narrative of heroes, villains, and victims that reflects a suspicion of technology. The essay seeks to reveal the rhetorical means through which the Sarasota H-T coverage cast that doubt on the voting technology while explicitly exonerating the voting technology of any blame for the large undervote in Sarasota County in 2006.  The controversy occurred before Florida emerged from the shadow of the 2000 presidential election dispute. Though the technology of voting gained increased attention after the 2000 presidential election, when the relative lack of reliability of punch-card ballots became apparent during the recount efforts (see Wand et al.), technology has been intertwined with the voting process since at least the nineteenth century.

Voting Technology

The technology of voting has evolved in the U.S.A. (see Ansolabehere and Stewart 368-369; Saltman; Schocket, Heighberger, and Brown 522). Until the late nineteenth century, voice or paper ballots dominated the voting process. Voters made their selections clear by either verbally stating their choices or making a mark next to a preferred candidate. Mechanical lever machines emerged in the 1890s and though still in use in some precincts (6.83% of voters used a lever machine in 2006, according to Election Data Services), they have not been produced since the 1980s. They work by asking voters to move a lever next to the voter’s corresponding choice. The number of times each lever is moved is counted mechanically. Voting on optical scan devices began to occur in the 1950s and was widely adopted in the 1990s (Dee 674). In an optical scan system voters mark a ballot and then feed it through an electronic scanning device that records and tallies the votes.  The first punch card systems surfaced in the early 1960s.  Voters punch a hole in the ballot that corresponds to their choices.  The punch cards are then run through a card reader and the votes are tallied.  Direct result electronic (DRE) systems, of which touch-screen machines are a form, first appeared in the 1970s as push-button devices.  More modern DREs, and those used in Sarasota County in 2006, ask voters to touch a screen to register their votes, which are then stored electronically.  Most recently, the Arizona Democratic Party conducted its primary election online (Gibson).  This was possible because political parties in Arizona hold a special status that allows them to forego legislative approval for their election practices.  The primary election was technically a private election and did not have to meet state election certification (Gibson 565).  At this point, optimism about convenience and increased turn-out for internet voting is balanced by concerns over fraud, access to technology, and security (Stromer-Galley 728-729).  While some organizations and jurisdictions in and outside the U.S.A. continue to show some interest in online elections, a legally binding internet public election is not likely for some time (Gibson 582).

Some of these methods of voting met with more criticism than others.  As Laurie Robertson has written, “any U.S. voting technology is burdened from its very inception with the expectation of technologically ensuring voting integrity” (86).  Paper ballots were thought too susceptible to fraud and were replaced by lever machines in many places (Saltman 71-103).  Lever machines faced objections that they were not transparent enough because the voter could not actually see her/his vote recorded.  As with any mechanical device, there were also concerns about lever machines breaking down (Saltman 120).  Punch card systems attracted some negative attention in the 1990s when a simulated election in Cincinnati and official elections in Wisconsin and Massachusetts suggested that the use of punch cards resulted in a relatively higher number of unreadable or invalid ballots (Saltman 181-184).  Most infamously, punch cards received much of the blame for the controversial presidential results in Florida in 2000.  DREs, as will be discussed in this paper, also faced criticisms about transparency.  Technological advances outside the realm of voting also have affected perception of each voting technology.  Though often considered state-of-the-art at the time it was introduced, each technology will eventually be compared to other technological devices with which voters are familiar, such as ATM machines, personal computers, or smart phones.  As Robertson has written, “technological advances completely outside the electoral realm can significantly impact the perceived ‘trustability’ of voting technology” (86).  The perception of voting technology is further complicated by the fact that the technology used is not standardized in the U.S.

Local (usually county) governments determine voting procedures and therefore the technology used in 2006 varied across the country and even across a given state.  In the wake of the 2000 presidential election, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 encouraged counties to update their voting equipment and many precincts adopted optical scan equipment or DREs.  However, virtually all the methods listed above, other than voice ballots and online voting, were still in use in 2006.

The relative merits of the various technologies are still unclear.  As Peter A. Shocket, Neil R. Heighberger, and Clyde Brown have written, a “ballot and the technology employed to register and record the vote should be as invisible or transparent as possible.  Transparent in three senses: it should be unobtrusive so as not to inhibit the complete exercise of the franchise; second, it should be neutral in the sense of not giving one candidate or issue preference over another; and third, it should be simple enough to insure the voter translates his or her political preference clearly” (521).  Michael J. Hanmer et al. have noted that after 2000, “new technologies were adopted with the explicit intention of reducing or eliminating overvotes, spoiled ballots, and to the extent that they were unintended, undervotes” (130).  Despite these efforts, investigations into which technology is most effective for reducing residual (uncountable) votes have produced mixed results.  Ansolabehere and Stewart have found that, in presidential elections, traditional paper ballots produced the lowest rates of uncounted votes, followed by optical scan machines, lever machines, DREs, and finally punch cards (365).  They concluded that touch-screen machines and other DREs produced about the same percentage of residual votes as mechanical lever machines.  Michael Tomz and Robert P. Van Houweling reported a similar rate of invalid votes on lever and DRE machines in their study of votes cast in 2000 in Louisiana (55).  Shocket, Heighberger, and Brown concluded that DRE machines performed better than paper ballots and punchcard machines.  In 2001, Henry E. Brady and his coauthors found that DRE machines perform as well or better than optical scan machines.  In contrast, Hanmer et al. found that every change from old to newer technology between 2000 and 2004 produced reduced rates of residual votes, but that DRE machines produced twice the percentage of residual votes than optical scan systems in the 2004 presidential election (134).  According to Ansolabehere and Stewart, rates of residual votes in presidential elections from 1988 – 2000 ranged from 1.9% for paper ballots to 2.5% for punchcard and DRE machines (378).  Thomas Dee also found that punchcard ballots increased the likelihood that voters would mistakenly vote for the wrong candidate in his analysis of the 2003 gubernatorial recall election in California (682).

Scholars were not the only ones concerned about the reliability of voting technology.  A 2004 exit poll asked voters how confident they were that votes would be counted accurately in their states.  In Florida, 74% responded that they were “very” or “somewhat” confident, compared to 91% across the country (qtd. in Hanmer et al. 132).  Those numbers moved to 83% in Florida and 87% nationwide in 2006, according to a CNN.com exit poll.  It is little surprise that Floridians in particular were skeptical of the voting process, given the state’s experience in the contested 2000 presidential election.

Florida’s 13th Congressional District 2006 Election

After the controversial 2000 presidential election, Florida sought to rid itself of the punch-card election ballots that spawned a thousand “chad jokes.”  The government passed reforms to update the voting technology in the state and dedicated over $125 million to new computerized equipment and training (Morse 2).  However, the state left the choice of a replacement voting system to individual counties.  Many counties chose optical scan ballots. The marked paper ballot served as the written record of the vote, thus avoiding having to interpret the assorted states of the chads in the punch card.

Sarasota County was among those counties that chose touch-screen voting machines.  Touch-screen voting machines display the candidates for particular offices on a series of computer screens.  The voter touches the name of the desired candidate on the screen and the vote is recorded on a computer chip.  After moving through all the races, the voter then sees a review screen that summarizes the votes in each race and the voter can then either change her choices or confirm her votes.  The touch-screen machines used in Florida provided no written record of the vote or the voter’s intention.

The election occurred on November 7, 2006 and voters in Florida’s 13th Congressional district were asked to elect a governor, Congressperson, Attorney General, and to fill several other offices.  The Congressional contest between Jennings and Buchanan was particularly contentious.  At the end of election night, Buchanan held a 368-vote lead over Jennings. (Wallace, “Democrats”).  The small margin of victory triggered an automatic recount.  Even more controversy developed when it was discovered that over 18,000 people who had voted in other contests had not voted in the Congressional race, a 13% “undervote,” unusually high for such a high-profile race (a more typical undervote for such a race would be somewhere under 7%).  Throughout election day, voters complained to poll workers and to Jennings’ campaign staff that their votes in that race were not registering on the voting machines or that they did not see that race displayed at all (Mahlburg and Tamman; Wallace, “Democrats”).  Because so few votes distinguished the winner from the loser, the undervote could have influenced the outcome of the election.  Several possible explanations for the undervote were circulated, including voter protest, a confusing ballot design, and defective voting equipment (Mahlburg and Tamman). 

As a result of the close results and the undervote, Sarasota County conducted a recount and audited the voting machines.  A recount on touch-screen machines entails making sure the number of voters matches the number of ballots and feeding absentee ballots through a scanning machine (Cormier).  The audit consisted of conducting a scaled-down election, called a parallel test, tracking how the auditors voted and checking whether the results from the machines matched the auditors’ votes (Ruger, “Under”).  The margin of victory was eventually established at 369 votes in Buchanan’s favor, the county audit found no evidence that the voting machines malfunctioned, and state elections officials declared Buchanan the winner and certified the election on November 20, 2006. 

Jennings immediately sued for a new election, alleging “pervasive malfunctioning” of touch-screen voting machines.  (Dunkelberger, “District 13”).  While the lawsuit proceeded, the State of Florida conducted its own audit of the voting machines.  The state also found no evidence of faulty technology.  The lawsuit eventually focused on whether Jennings’ legal team would be allowed to review the computer codes used to operate the voting machines.  The voting machine manufacturer, Election Systems & Software Inc. (ES & S), resisted this request, asserting that the computer codes were a trade secret (Dunkelberger, “Filings Made”).  Jennings’ request to review the source code was eventually denied.  However, a final legal settlement in Florida drew on so long that U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, to investigate the disputed election (Wallace, “Senator”).  The GAO was granted permission to review ES & S’s source code.  In February 2008, the GAO reported that its investigation found that the machines did not malfunction and were not the cause of the undervote (Mitchell).  Jennings challenged Buchanan for the same office in 2008, but Buchanan comfortably won re-election with 55% of the vote, a margin of 66,372 votes (“This Time”). 

While the election was being contested in the courts, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune continued to investigate and report on the undervote phenomenon.  In addition to reporting the lack of evidence of technological failure mentioned above, the paper eventually concluded that, while several factors probably contributed to the undervote, “the most important factor in the undervote was bad ballot design” (Doig and Tamman).  In Sarasota County, the Supervisor of Elections designed the ballot so that the two-candidate Congressional race was displayed on the same screen as the six-candidate gubernatorial race, with the Congressional race on top and the Governor’s race below it.2  The Sarasota H-T also suggested that the sample ballot mailed out in advance, the colors, and the headings on the computer screens may have contributed to the undervote (Doig and Tamman; Mahlburg; Tamman and Doig, “Experts”).  The newspaper subsequently published articles that quoted political scientist Michael Herron stating that a machine malfunction would be a “significant stretch of the imagination” (qtd. in Dunkelberger, “District 13”), summarized an investigation by information technology specialists, stating that their “unanimous opinion is that the iVotronic firmware, including faults that we identified, did not cause or contribute to the CD13 undervote” (Sperling), and provided the conclusions of Florida’s Division of Elections that found “no evidence to suggest or conclude that the Sarasota County iVotronic touch-screens failed to accurately capture votes in the U.S. Congressional District 13 race” (“Deplorable Delay”).  Poltical scientists Laurin Frisina, Michael C. Herron, James Honaker, and Jeffrey B. Lewis eventually published a scholarly study of the election and came to the same conclusion.  Frisina et al. argued that “the cause of the Sarasota undervote was a confusing ballot format” (40).  Ballot design details are largely left to individual Supervisors of Elections (Lee, “Change”).  Despite reporting these findings and explicitly eliminating technology as the cause of any problems, I contend that the rhetorical tendencies of the newspaper’s reporting implicitly expressed a suspicion of the role of technology in the controversy.  I conducted a close reading of 47 articles published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune from November 8, 2006 to August 20, 2007.  My analysis argues that the reporting created a narrative in which technology became the agent responsible for the victimization of the voters in Sarasota County and that the Sarasota H-T simultaneously vilified technology while placing it prominently at the center of the narrative of the contested election. 

The Absent Humans

In the Sarasota H-T’s coverage of the 2006 FL-13 election, humans were often absented entirely or, if present, were portrayed as passive victims while machines became active agents.  According to Kenneth Burke, all symbolic action, such as language and news stories, can be understood as a drama, with “an act (names what took place, in thought or deed)…, scene (the background of the act, the situation in which it occurred); also, you must indicate what person or kind of person (agent) performed the act, what means or instruments he used (agency), and the purpose” (xv).  Rushing and Frentz have argued that at the core of the discomfort with the technology is the agent-agency ratio.  “The evolutionary direction of the drama is from relative identification toward increased division of agency from agent, that is, from tool as simple extension from the body toward machine as agency-turned-agent with a purpose of its own” (64).  More recently, Gordon Coonfield has written that when “technology gets out of control and threatens human beings, it is because technology appropriates essentially human characteristics” (289-290).  One can see a similar process constructed rhetorically in the Sarasota H-T’s coverage of the election controversy, as the writers often removed the people from the narrative.  On the day after the election, the Sarasota H-T reported that “nearly 13 percent of all ballots cast in Sarasota didn’t include a choice for Congress” (Wallace, “Democrats”).  The same article reported that “a similar undervote was not recorded in other counties that voted in the District 13 race.  In DeSoto County, only about 70 fewer votes were cast in the House race as the governor’s race” (Wallace, “Democrats”).  Though the “ballots” and “votes” were present in the discourse, those who cast them, the voters, were absent.  The week after the election the Sarasota H-T conducted a survey and reported that more than 100 respondents in their survey reported that “their votes in the congressional race were not recorded after passing through the ballot for the first time” (Gluck, Allen, and Saewitz).  In reporting the results of an investigation by Florida State University scholars, the paper wrote “ballot design combined with the absence of a prominent undervote warning led to the high undervote” (Sperling).  The paper often made no mention of the voters, as if they were not a part of the process.  Likewise, the paper quoted a statement by ES & S, producer of the touch-screen voting machines, claiming that “the only logical explanation as to why there were undervotes in the District 13 race is that no votes were cast which could be counted” (Dunkelberger, “Filings”).  Once again, the passive construction removed the human agents from the events.  The Sarasota H-T even quoted one voter, Linda Flores, explicitly expressing a sense of personal absence: “it was like I never voted” (Lee, “Group”).

It was not just the voters who were often absent in the discourse.  In fact, many of the humans involved in the voting process: manufacturers, programmers, county representatives, and voters were de-emphasized through passive constructions.  “As to why the grouping of two races on one electronic page may have led to an undervote, Herron [Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College] said it remained to be determined.  It could be a problem where a two-candidate race was grouped with a race with multiple candidates, or he suggested it could simply be a problem when multiple candidate names were listed on one page” (Dunkelberger, “District 13”).  The main culprit here appeared to be “the grouping of two races on one electronic page” (Dunkelberger, “District 13”).  The people who grouped them, who missed the race, or who listed the names were grammatically excised from the situation.  Similarly, when the paper wrote that an “investigation previously suggested that flawed ballot design was likely the main reason for the highly unusual undervote” (Dunkelberger, “District 13”), there was no mention of the person who designed the ballot, the County Supervisor of Elections.  Passive construction enabled the absence of the staff of the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections at other times in the news coverage.  When reporting the procedures for the recount, the Sarasota H-T stated that “those [paper] records would be examined and counted” (Ruger, “Under”).  Even the programmers were sometimes absent in the Sarasota H-T’s coverage: “all of the programs and software put on the machines by manufacturer Elections Systems & Software were approved by the state, which kept a copy of the files” (Ruger, “Tests”).  There is not a human being to be found in the entire sentence.

Humans were not universally absent from the controversy.  They occasionally played an active role.  When passive construction did not remove people from the election drama, the Sarasota H-T often wrote about people experiencing problems with the technology of the voting machines.3  For example:

Typically, Paul and Lillian-Lucille Adair don’t have any problems with the touch-screen voting.  Paul Adair, 76, and his 75-year-old wife showed up at the La Costa mobile home park precinct on Nov. 7 to vote for the 16th time in a dozen years.  They’ve voted on punch card systems, cast absentee ballots and used touch-screen electronic voting systems.  All that experience saved his wife from missing the congressional race – but just barely.  “We take one of those printed ballots with us,” he said.  “I saw the two names, but she missed it.  She only caught it at the end.” (Tamman)

Likewise,

Jorge Hernandez walked into his polling station in Sarasota this month well versed in the issues and eager to vote in the District 13 congressional race.  He left feeling he had dodged a bullet.  Hernandez said he pressed the touch-screen to cast a vote for Democrat Christine Jennings.  But just before he submitted his vote, a review screen showed the race was blank.  After asking a poll worker to correct the problem, it got him thinking.  What if he hadn’t checked?  “I was within a second of going because I was in a hurry,” said Hernandez, 44.  “I almost missed it and would have been an undervote.” (Gluck, Allen, and Saewitz)

Active constructions marked these passages, making the people more present than in the previous examples.  However, their activity in these examples was obstructed by the technology of the voting machines.  In the case of the Adairs, the low-technology of the paper ballot barely prevented their victimization at the hands of the deceptive touch-screens.  The idea that people needed to be protected from technology surfaced from the start of the controversy when the Sarasota H-T reported Jennings’ efforts to ensure that “the rights of Florida voters [were] protected” because voters “complained that touch-screen voting machines were not registering votes for Jennings properly” (Wallace, “Democrats”).  The newspaper almost immediately suggested the “machines” were the prime suspect and the voters were the victims who needed to be “protected” from the technology.  Indeed, the articles that reported on the controversy often made the technology the most influential actor in the narrative the newspaper constructed.

Machines as Agents

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune often relied on active construction when discussing the touch-screen voting machines.  From a Burkean perspective, this positioned the machines as the agent “who” performed the act (blocking votes, electing Buchanan).  Discursively, the machines wrested control from the people, usurping their role as agent.  As Rushing and Frentz have argued, concern over the role of technology can be traced to the transformation from machines as agency (tools of the people) to machines as agents.  One can see textual evidence of this transformation in the Sarasota H-T’s coverage when the paper quoted a computer scientist who claimed that “without the source code, it would be very difficult or impossible for me to determine how the software behaved” (Dunkelberger, “Academics”).  In that quote, the machines seem to “behave” independently as people would.  When describing the audit conducted to determine whether the machines functioned properly, the newspaper stated that the “test could address reports by voters that they selected a candidate on the ballot screen, but then saw on a review screen that their vote had not been recorded.  The chips inside each machine contain software that tells the machine how to work.  If the files have been changed somehow, it could mean the machines weren’t properly counting votes, or that they were failing to register a vote even though the voter touched the screen in the right place” (Ruger, “Tests”).  Here, the “chips” and the “machines” were the agents/subjects.  In the narrative constructed by the newspaper, the technology took an active role from the very beginning.  The newspaper stated as much when it reported that the tests of the equipment were “unlikely to dispel concerns… that the machines somehow contributed to the large number of undervotes” (Ruger, “Tests”).  The day after voters went to the polls the paper reported that Jennings’ supporters “are worried there might be hundreds of voters who intended to vote but a computer glitch seems to be preventing it” (Wallace, “Democrats”).  Here the computer glitch was posited as the more powerful agent.  In an editorial urging the abandonment of touch-screen voting machines, the Sarasota H-T proclaimed that “as long as touch-screen systems are in use, the state would remain exposed to the doubts and difficulties they present” (“Toward a Better Ballot”).  Note the subject of the initial dependent clause is the technology.  Further note that the people are eliminated from the sentence (in use by whom?).  When Florida Governor Charlie Crist proposed removing nearly all touch-screen machines from polling stations in Florida, the Sarasota H-T still made the technology the subject of the sentence and the agent in the narrative:  “But the electronic machines had plenty of critics too.  Their biggest complaint was that the machines left no paper record that could be used to settle a disputed election – like last year’s 13th Congressional District race in Sarasota, where Democrats claimed 18,000 votes went unrecorded on the touch-screen machines” (Dunkelberger and Ruger).  Then House Speaker Marco Rubio emphasized the technology when the newspaper quoted him stating that “some counties… decided to go with these (touch-screen) machines and apparently in some instances they may not have worked as well as they wanted” (Follick).

It was not just when the paper reported criticisms of the technology that the machines became the subject.  Even when defenses of the machines were presented, the machines were the agents.  The newspaper reported ES & S lawyers’ arguments that the “voting machines ‘performed as they were designed and accurately recorded votes’” (Dunkelberger, “Filings”), and that the “machines worked properly” (Dunkelberger, “Judge”).  Moreover, the human role in the production of the machines was once again only implicit (who designed them?).  Beyond statements from ES & S, however, explicit defenses of the machines were relatively rare in the newspaper’s coverage.

Nevertheless, the tendency to grammatically construct the machines actively and the people passively contributed to a tone of suspicion toward the technology.  While the explicit message of the stories largely blamed human error (ballot design, inattentive voters) for the problem of the undervotes (and by extension the failure to elect the “rightful” winner), the grammar centered the technology.  The machines became the focal point around which the people (the candidates, the voters) revolved.  Once again, technology served as the center of our lives, not unlike when we are watching our flat-screen televisions or listening to our iPods.  In those cases our attention is on the technology, just as the reader’s attention was focused on the technology in the stories about the FL-13 election.

The Victims in the Narrative

The Sarasota H-T created a narrative complete with villains and victims.  Despite the central position of the technology in the story, the Sarasota H-T’s coverage did not frame the machines as the heroes in the narrative.  The technology, by usurping the role of agent from the human beings, became the villain.  The humans, in turn, became the victims who needed protection from overzealous machines.  The cast of characters victimized by the cold machinery was quite long.  Most obviously there were Christine Jennings and the Democrats, robbed of their “rightful” position in Congress.  However, Republican winner Vern Buchanan was also victimized by the technology.  He was forced to serve in Congress under a cloud of suspicion that he did not really win his seat (“Deplorable Delay;” “Justice Delayed”).  Additionally, all those who voted in Sarasota County were potentially robbed of their right to choose their own government and became “technologically disenfranchised” (Shocket, Heighberger, and Brown 523).  Moreover, the sense of injustice was magnified in the reporting by the suggestion that seniors were more likely to have registered an undervote.  Foreshadowing of this plot development first surfaced two days after the election when the Sarasota H-T reported that “virtually every precinct had relatively high undervotes.  Among the worst was La Casa Mobile Home Park, a retirement park for seniors where 30 percent of people who showed up at the polls did not have a vote recorded in the Buchanan-Jennings race” (Mahlburg and Tamman).  The next day, the newspaper reported that its own “analysis of the voting returns showed that the southern part of the county – particularly precincts in and around North Port – had the highest undervote rate” (Tamman and Doig, “North Port”).  Though the paper stated several times that “there has been no explanation for that trend (Ruger, “Under;” Ruger, “Tests”), local readers were likely to know that a 55-and-over mobile home park is located in North Port.  Eventually the paper reported a correlation between age and the likelihood of an undervote.  “In precincts where the median age was greater than 65, the undervote rate in the congressional race was 18 percent, 40 percent higher than in younger precincts” (Tamman).  Twelve days after the election, the Sarasota H-T published several first-hand accounts of the voting experience, noting the ages of those providing the accounts.  In it, the paper quoted individuals aged 74, 71, 70, 83 (as well as a 44-year-old, a 55-year-old, and a 56-year-old) (Gluck, Allen, and Saewitz).  Highlighting the elderly who had problems voting heightened the sense of victimization.  The elderly are among the most vulnerable in our society, and are also commonly considered to interact uncomfortably with newer technology, despite the counter-example of the Adairs, mentioned above, who had voted multiple times with multiple voting technologies.  Of course, some seniors embrace technology, just as some 20-year-olds struggle with technology.  I do not seek to blame seniors for any difficulties experienced at the polls.  What I wish to argue is that, in the narrative, the elderly worked particularly well as the victims when the villain was technology.

Don’t Blame the Voter/Consumer

In its coverage of the disputed 2006 FL-13 Congressional race, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune often supplanted humans with machines through grammatical constructions.  In so doing, it altered the agent-agency relationship that people often assume defines the human relationship with technology.  Technology became the agent rather than the agency, and assumed more responsibility for the election results than the voters.  Journalism’s generic convention of creating a narrative while reporting the news expressed a suspicion of technology.  The story needed a villain and cold technology, with its “secret” source code, made for a good one.  At the same time, voters (who were the audience for the Herald-Tribune’s coverage), especially elderly voters, made for good victims in the narrative.  They were vulnerable and only seeking to do their democratic duty.  I do not mean to suggest that the suspicion of the voting machines is misplaced (or properly placed).  Indeed, many computer science experts have expressed skepticism about the security and dependability of computerized voting technology.  This analysis does not seek to take a position on the desirability of computerized voting machines.  Of utmost interest for the purposes of this analysis is how technology was discussed in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and what kind of ideologies lie beneath the journalistic practices observed in the coverage of the election.

One can understand the reluctance to place any blame for the controversy on the voters.  Neither Jennings nor Buchanan had any incentive to draw attention to the human contributions to the confusion.  As the Sarasota H-T itself reported, “for Buchanan, blaming the undervotes on inattentive voters would essentially be an acknowledgment that he would have lost but for the design of the ballot.  And a ballot design that caused voter confusion is a legal dead end for Jennings.  Her lawsuit specifically shoots down ballot design in favor of machine error” (Doig and Tamman).  What was not mentioned was that the Sarasota H-T also had little incentive to publicize voter error.  Those voters were the same readers/consumers of the newspaper.  To suggest that people got confused could be perceived, as one of Jennings’ lawyers stated, “a tad insulting” (Doig and Tamman).  The newspaper also reported that “many of the voters interviewed bristled at the notion that they were somehow careless or clueless and thus missed the race” (Gluck, Allen, and Saewitz).  The last thing a politician would want to do is to insult potential voters and a commercial enterprise like a newspaper would hardly want to risk insulting its consumers.  As Coonfield has noted, when problems with a technology arise, an instrumentalist understanding of technology insists that either the technology is to blame or the human users are to blame (289).  By rhetorically placing the blame on the technology, the human users were free to play the role of victims in the Sarasota H-T’s reporting.  Furthermore, with blame assigned, policy options for avoiding future problems seemed natural (Coonfield 289).

Coincidentally, while many people were not voting for either Jennings or Buchanan, they were voting to eliminate touch-screen voting machines in Sarasota County.  Even before this controversy arose, a ballot initiative that appeared on the same ballot on November 7, 2006 was approved to implement a voting system that produced a paper trail.  Following the controversy, Governor Charlie Crist made a similar proposal at the state level, putting an end to touch-screen voting in Florida for all but those with physical disabilities that preclude them from voting on paper ballots.  All Florida counties would have to implement an optical scanning voting system if they had not yet done so (many chose that system following the 2000 presidential election controversy).4

Of course, optical scanning machines are technological devices, also.  For that matter, so are the mechanical devices that counted punch-card ballots.  Florida is not eschewing technology, but is searching for the right technology to solve problems associated with different technology.  Here lies another symptom of our technological ambivalence.  Samuel C. Florman has argued that Americans have a history of often turning to technology to solve problems caused by technology (182-185).  Consequently, further analysis of journalistic and public sphere discourse about other voting technologies is needed to investigate whether traces of suspicion of different (or the same) technologies are present in other places and elections.  This analysis suggests that, while news sources are often assumed to be objective and free of ideological bias, generic conventions of journalism can embed biases in reporting.  In this case, the bias relates to American distrust of technology and a concern that technology, such as voting machines, can stop acting as our tools and can instead usurp our roles as agents.  Discourses such as the Sarasota Herald-Tribune have continued to reflect our suspicion of technology.  As much as Americans love our gadgets, popular discourses still seem to warn us that our machines pose a potential threat to our control over our own lives.

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Notes

 

1 Fiske’s argument is largely about television news.  However, much of what he has suggested can also apply to print news, as Eklund Koza has demonstrated.

2 In other counties that make up District 13, the congressional race appeared on its own screen, but the attorney general’s race appeared on the same screen as the governor’s race.  Other counties experienced a significant undervote in the A.G. races (Tamman and Doig, “Experts”).

3 One notable exception was a satirical article by David Grimes, “Florida Voters Do It Again.”  In it, Grimes claimed that “Floridians have demonstrated to the rest of the country that we have the voting skills of an adult diaper.”  However, in the form of satire, readers may not have taken seriously the implicit suggestion to consider the role of humans in the controversy.

4 The delay in determining the winner of Florida in the 2012 presidential election may suggest that the voting technology was not the only hindrance to an smooth and trustworthy voting process.

 

Biography: James A. Janack (Ph. D., University of Washington) is an Associate Professor of Communication and Director of the Oral Communication Program at Eckerd College. His research has explored the role of communication technologies in politics and the democratic process. In addition to Technoculture, his scholarship has appeared in Controversia, Social Semiotics, and the American Communication Journal.

 

© 2012 James Janack, used by permission.


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