By Rebecca Mercuri on 7/19/2007, 9:52am PT  

Guest Blogged by Rebecca Mercuri

(NOTE: The archived appearance of Dr. Mercuri on the Peter B. Collins show, as Guest Hosted by Brad Friedman, discussing this article and other matters surrounding Holt's Election Reform bill is now available here....)

Anyone who has been anywhere in the blogosphere in the months since Rush Holt's HR 811 Election Reform bill was introduced knows that a schism appears to have developed in the voting advocacy community. I say "appears" because it's not terribly clear to me at this point whether this schism existed all along and now the fires are being stoked by rogue insiders in order to fuel a "divide and conquer" effort that benefits voting system vendors who can rise like Phoenixes out of the ashes of the activists, or whether Congressman Holt's bill is a litmus test being used to decide who'll continue to get a seat at the table (to testify at hearings) and a chunk of the grant money and other set-asides for election "research" projects. Maybe both of these actions (and others) are in play.

This has been reminding me a lot lately of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, riding on the hippie bus to the 1964 New York World's Fair. Tom Wolfe quoted Kesey saying: "There are going to be times when we can't wait for somebody. Now, you're either on the bus or off the bus. If you're on the bus, and you get left behind, then you'll find it again. If you're off the bus in the first place --- then it won't make a damn." Wolfe went on to explain "And nobody had to have it spelled out for them. Everything was becoming allegorical, understood by the group mind, and especially this: You're either on the bus ... or off the bus."

That dividing line between where the bus ends and the rest of the world begins, right where Wolfe was sitting, is the only place to get some decent perspective on the whole situation. So I'm perched at that vantage point, and inside the voting bus I'm seeing Brad Friedman, Bev Harris, Lynn Landes, Rob Kall, Teresa Hommel, Ellen Theisen, Mark Crispin Miller, Greg Palast, Ion Sancho, Doug Kelner, David Chaum, and Dennis Kucinich all arguing about something, but the vibe is upbeat. And outside the bus there's Doug Lewis, Wally O'Dell, Tom Wilkey, Theresa LePore, Linda Lamone, Jeb Bush, Karl Rove, Hans von Spakovsky, Jim Dickson, and Matt Damschroeder just milling around. These are not comprehensive lists (since I'm somewhat myopic and have never been very good with names or faces), and I'm certainly not saying that any of these folks have affiliations with each other, though maybe some do.

What's bugging me is that I can't tell whether Rush Holt and HR 811 are on the bus, or not, right now. Though the bill's predecessor versions (from the prior two Congresses) seemed to be on the bus, none of Holt's bills have ever made it totally clear that the voter verified papers would actually be the real ballots, by ensuring that 100% of them would be counted (preferably by hand, in public, and before the election night returns are reported).

The folks who are truly on the bus all seem to grasp this reality. Holt's latest bill, especially the revised version, comes with Avi Rubin, David Dill, Barbara Simons, and maybe even Ron Rivest, each of whom have wandered on and off the bus before. Plus now there's the Microsoft attorneys too, and Holt's backyard buddy Avante, who hopped on when the bus passed through their adjacent parking lots (see photo below).

We just know this whole crowd is probably not going to get along terribly well with Brad and Mark and Lynn. So if HR 811 gets off the bus, the Microsoft team will certainly be a lot happier, although I don't know how well Avi and Wally will fare together. Of course, there's a lot more room (as well as money) off the bus than there is on it, so maybe they'll be OK outside since they don't have to sit together (unless they want to).

Speaking of money, there's always been some friction between those who get on the bus just to grab some of it, and those who are there to groove and make the world a better place. Heck, it was the Corporations who turned The Summer of Love into a marketing opportunity, back then as well as now. And the cash never seems to wind up in the hands of the folks who came up with the original out-of-the-box ideas. Often the payola (especially if it's coming from the Government) is used to cut the independent watchdogs and truly creative folks out or make them look stupid. We've certainly seen that happening with some of the foundation funded voting projects, such as those out of Caltech/MIT, whose results always seem to miss the mark or inevitably reinforce the status quo.

But the creativity was one of the things that differentiated Kesey and the Pranksters from the world outside. They were always building something that nobody had seen before, or trying to push the limits just to find out what would happen. One day, at their encampment in La Honda, Kesey's gang put up a huge sign "The Merry Pranksters Welcome the Hell's Angels" and after a short while, the motorcyclists showed up. Some weeks later, they tried the welcome sign idea again with the Beatles when they were in town, but the Fab Four never wandered by. It's like the way these new balloting systems like Punchscan and VotePad and Open Voting Solutions would like to "Welcome the EAC Voluntary Voting System Guidelines" but because they're so totally incompatible, they're just not going to be spending time together getting to know each other, even though they should. Of course this means that everyone off the bus is going to be stuck with whatever Wally and Rush and the Microsoft attorneys can agree on, but at least some folks will know these aren't the only voting metaphors in town.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: if you need to have it spelled out for you, then you were off the bus in the first place. This is just one of those times when we can't wait, so if you were on the bus and got left behind, well, you'll find it again. There's some exciting things happening on the bus and it seems like Democracy is due for a change. Come on, hop on for a while and enjoy the ride.

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Rebecca Mercuri has been riling folks on and off the voting bus since 1989. She is constantly amazed at the ease by which voting system vendors and presumably well-intentioned legislators can turn simple functional concepts into distorted nightmarish implementations, even without the assistance of hallucinogenics.