It is perhaps just as well that the United States is a sovereign nation and not a company listed on a recognised stock exchange.
If any such company were to conduct an election for its board of directors using the methods used for the 2000 presidential ballot it would probably be laughed out of court by the market place.
A company which dared suggest that a more accurate result would be obtained by disregarding large blocks of votes might also have its shares suspended for its pains.
Leading companies in the United States have for some years been rather more sophisticated than their government. They now regularly give their members four alternative ways of casting votes at annual general meetings - in person, by sending in a conventional proxy form, by telephone, or through a computer connected to the Internet.
The latter involves investors bearing the relevant telephone and ISP access charges, but the process is very fast and to a regular surfer on the net these costs are negligible.
Eligibility to vote is established by the company mailing a special proxy form to each person who is a shareholder on the books closing date for the meeting. This accompanies the notice of meeting and is encoded with a unique "control number" - usually a 12- or 13-digit password serving the same function of identifying the recipient as a PIN does on a plastic card.
On accessing a specified web site shown on the documentation an investor is given the choice of voting for the management recommendations en bloc by hitting a single key or voting on each question separately. The former is the equivalent of sending in a blank proxy in favour of the chairman of the meeting, while the latter allows "for", "against" or "abstain" decisions on each matter as the voter sees fit.
A further screen then shows all the proposals again, this time with the voter's indicated choices set out beside each. The voter thus has the opportunity to correct any errors, or to rethink the answers, before pressing another button to confirm the voting pattern.
If desired, an e-mail response from the returning officer can be obtained immediately, acknowledging that the vote has been duly received and processed. This highly efficient use of the new technology is very quick, convenient and cheap for all concerned.
Until the closing date for the poll voters can still change their minds, just by repeating the process described above. A later vote automatically overrides an earlier vote by the same person - naturally, this also stops any cheating by persons mindful of the old injunction to "vote early and vote often".
Such a system could very readily be adapted for use in local government, state and national elections and referenda in the United States, especially as these are usually all held at the same time. And, for that matter, such an approach could with advantage also be adopted in this country.
For the benefit of citizens not on the Internet computer terminals could be provided at polling booths, in much the same way as the machines with levers or punched card equipment are now.
Added advantages would be:
Although the US is now widely regarded as a banana republic by the rest of the world for its use of ancient technology for elections, businesses in that country have been at the forefront in modernising themselves.
Punched cards actually date back to as long ago as the early 1800s. A French silk weaver called Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented a way of automatically controlling the warp and weft threads on a silk loom, by recording patterns of holes in a string of cards. This was a brilliant concept at the time and punched cards were soon adapted to other uses.
Following the population trends established by previous surveys, it was estimated that the United States census of 1890 would be required to handle data from more than 62 million Americans. This would have taken about 10 years to process using the manual methods of earlier censuses.
The solution to this problem was developed during the 1880s by an American inventor called Herman Hollerith, whose idea was to use Jacquard's punched cards to represent the census data, and to then read and collate this information using an automatic tabulating machine.
Hollerith was a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While there he developed a simple prototype which employed cards which were punched using a tram conductor's ticket punch. Each card contained the data associated with a particular individual.
Hollerith later on formed a company to exploit this development. This company is today well known under its modern name of International Business Machines or IBM.
Businesses in the United States (and Australia) were using punched cards from the 1920s onwards, but started using computers and throwing out their old equipment in the 1950s.
One would have thought that the election authorities in a country that prides itself on being technologically advanced would have heard of this by now.
© 2000 N E Renton. All rights reserved.
President Ronald Reagan was once asked to comment on reports that his decisions while in the White House had had regard to predictions made by Nancy Reagan's astrologer.
"Not true," he said. "We Virgos don't believe in such nonsense."
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