In ATMs, Not Votes, We Trust

When the ATM asks whether I want a receipt, I usually say no. When a Web site wants my credit card number, I usually say yes. When I pay bills online, there is no paper record of the transaction. In my failure to demand physical evidence when money changes hands, I am not very unusual. Most Americans now conduct at least some of their financial transactions without paper, or at least sleep happily knowing that others do. Yet when it comes to voting — a far simpler and more straightforward activity than electronic bank transfers — we suddenly become positively 19th century in our need for a physical record.

It is, if you think about it, quite inexplicable.

Two weeks after the election, the Internet rumor mill continues to spout stories of computer-stolen votes. No sooner are they disproved than others appear. Some are demanding an Ohio recount. Otherwise sober people are asking whether there can be smoke without fire. Last weekend the New York Times published an editorial that found “no evidence” of vote fraud but called electronic voting “a problem” all the same. After all, the editorial noted, there is “no way to be sure” that votes weren’t changed “by secret software” inside the machines. If you’re tempted to believe that analysis is rational, just ask yourself this question: Are you really sure that your bank isn’t using secret software to steal $9.72 from your retirement account every week? And if the answer is no, why aren’t you up in arms about that, too?

Given our reliance on computerized accounting, the explanation for the American paranoia about computer voting cannot be rational. It must lie elsewhere, in some special part of the national psyche. Plenty of other nations are prone to conspiracy theories, of course: I’ve never forgotten a conversation I had with a Western-educated, business-suited Jordanian who explained to me that the two blue stripes on the Israeli flag represent the Nile and Euphrates rivers, the planned future borders of the Jewish state. But American conspiracies have their own peculiar flavor. They tend to involve concrete, significant historical events, and they almost always concern our own government, not external cabals. There are few European equivalents, for example, to the decades of speculation that have been devoted to the Kennedy assassination, which no government commission and no historian has ever put to rest. Surely the post-Sept. 11 rumors will have an equally long run: “The Bush administration knew in advance,” “The Bush family is protecting the Saudis” and “Did a plane really hit the Pentagon?” are all still fully current. There isn’t any reason why “They stole the 2004 election” shouldn’t live forever, too.

Some of this may be attributable to a phenomenon observed a few years ago by a British psychologist: The larger and more significant the event, the larger the explanation the human brain seems to require. In a big country such as America, political cataclysms are inevitably large and significant. For that reason, there had to be a second gunman on the grassy knoll, and no bearded madman could possibly bring down the World Trade Center without inside help. By the same logic, the reelection of someone so widely loathed on the island of Manhattan could only be made possible by secret software.

Perhaps this country’s distrust of its politicians plays a role too, as do our rarely acknowledged anxieties about the stability of our political system. All of the longest-running American conspiracy theories involve small groups of people inside the government who are secretly trying to pervert the system. They may spout the rhetoric of liberal democracy, but really they’re trying to accrue personal wealth, or dominate the oil markets, or propagate some immoral cause, or steal the election. At this particular moment in history, the political left is more worried about anti-democratic cells operating in the U.S. government, but throughout the 1990s, an era of swooping black helicopters, the right was far more paranoid.

Perhaps it’s a phenomenon that requires no special explanation. Maybe it’s healthy that we have so much faith in our paperless financial system, and so little in our paperless voting machines. Not many democracies have lasted as long as ours, after all. Sometimes conspiracy theories do prove to be true, and it’s important to remain vigilant.

Or maybe our anxieties are simply misplaced. Not long ago, I met a man who believes the U.S. financial system is an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the Federal Reserve. I laughed him off — but when I retire and find my bank account empty, I probably won’t think it’s so funny.

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