Bike helmets and post-election verification

When I was a kid, bike helmets were unknown. I didn't get hurt and none of my friends got hurt in any way that didn't heal in a few weeks. We know better now, but whenever I put on a bike helmet, I still hear that little devil on my shoulder: "It's inconvenient." "It looks dorky." "I can't feel the wind in my hair." "I can't see as well." "I know how to be careful on a bike.” “I survived childhood without a helmet--what are the odds?"

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But the world has changed since I was a kid. Experience and reason won out and nowadays, most of us not only have our kids wear helmets, but we wear them ourselves.

A conversation with a very reasonable municipal clerk yesterday reminded me of bike helmets.  The conversation ended well (usually does) but started the same way that 99.9% of these conversations do: with the otherwise sensible elections official reflexively running through a predictable list of objections:

  • "We do pre-election tests" (they quickly realize those tests cannot catch Election-Day miscounts, when you point it out);
  • "The county clerk programs our machines, not the voting-machine company" (they quickly realize setting the machine up for each election is different than programming it to count votes, when you point it out);
  • "We check and double check that the machines counted the right number of ballots" (they quickly acknowledge they don't check the accuracy of the VOTE count, when you point it out.)
  • "The machines are approved by the feds and by the GAB" and "We've done several recounts and always got the same result." (they quickly realize that says nothing about whether THIS machine worked right on THIS day in THIS contest, when you point it out).

When we realize we’ve been doing something stupidly dangerous, we seem hard wired to come up with reasons why we’re immune from danger or in control of events that we know are not truly controllable. I don't know any way around this human reflex.

One place where the analogy between bike helmets and verification of voting-machine output breaks down is that miscounted elections don’t leave blood on the street. Quite the opposite: even the most surprising voting-machine output fails to arouse alarm—heck, it doesn't even arouse curiosity. For example, Eric Cantor’s legislative career can get smashed to smithereens and no one thinks even to ask whether there was an accident or crime. (To this day, no one knows. But Virginia’s voting machines were investigated and decertified the following year when an obvious problem revealed itself: The machines stopped working when people tried to download music on cell phones in the polling place.) Kids would probably still be helmetless if we had a similar blind spot and lack of interest about childhood injuries.

It’s going to take patience, lots of talking, and unfortunately a few more obvious disasters. We have to continue to spread the word about accidents that revealed themselves (like Stoughton and Medford) and explain that all accidents likely aren’t as obvious; that thieves are always trying to steal, particularly from those they know won’t notice a theft; and that we need to start to take the responsible precautions we can--soon.

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