I’m knocking out this piece on Tuesday morning, November 2, and it’s hours (at least, and possibly days, if you listen to the doomsayers on television) before the results of the presidential election will be known. But no matter: If you see me walking around town tomorrow, you will note a certain spring in my step. It’s not just because I am looking forward to U.S. 1’s 20th anniversary year (more about that next week). It’s also because I know that come tomorrow America will be a safer place to live.

If the Fox News candidate is elected, America will be safer because we will have a president who drove Saddam Hussein from power and eliminated weapons of mass destruction from Iraq (how better to explain the fact that no one ever found any?). The Fox man has Osama bin Laden on the run, hunkered down in some dank cave, equipped only with a small television studio and a broadband Internet connection. America is a safe place now, promised the candidate from Fox, and getting safer every day.

If the CBS News candidate is elected, America will be safer because he will take the war against terror to the real enemy, Osama bin Laden. The CBS candidate will resurrect a coalition of nations to fight the war on terror. He will retrofit our forces in Iraq so that they can help build that democracy we all so want for them (whether they want it or not).

If all that’s not enough to put some bounce into the day, there are already — just minutes after the first votes were cast at 6 a.m. at the Princeton United Methodist Church — some early returns. That’s my own personal referendum on the new electronic voting machines being used for the first time in Mercer County.

My vote is a qualified yes on the machines. For what it’s worth, at 6:02 a.m. on this morning the touch screen machines seemed more user-friendly than the best ATM machine in town. And it seems a whole lot easier to use than one of those daunting ticket dispensing machines at the Princeton Junction train station. The only problem I had with the electronic voting booth was that it took a while to figure out which candidate was which — they weren’t identified by their Fox and CBS labels.

Some folks will be watching those machines carefully. At Princeton University computer science professor Andrew Appel is leading a freshman seminar on “Election Machinery,” part of which will be devoted to a post mortem of the new technology being used in the 2004 election.

The electronic devices being used for the first time in Mercer County were subject of a lawsuit that was dismissed only a week ago. The suit, filed by the Constitutional Litigation Clinic of Rutgers on behalf of Princeton Assemblyman Reed Gusciora and the Coalition for Peace Action, among other groups, charged that the machines are vulnerable to manipulation and error.

The machines were indirectly criticized just last week in this newspaper, in a column by Joe Tallone of Avante International Technology at 70 Washington Road, which just happens to have an electronic system that also offers a “voter verified paper audit trail.”

The fact that no paper records exist to verify the votes cast this Tuesday in most of New Jersey is the reason why my vote in favor of the system is only a qualified yes. To return to the ATM comparison: If you ordered a withdrawal of $200 but the machine only spit out $100 you would find that paper receipt quite valuable when you confronted the manager inside the bank. But on the other hand, as the Princeton professor points out, even when paper records were the only voting records “there have been voting abuses as well as procedures and gadgets to combat those abuses.” And, he added, “it doesn’t matter what the machines are doing if you have thugs at the polling place.”

If we can assume that the designers of the New Jersey machine have a system for backing up their files, if have they have a Plan B in the event of a massive power blackout, and if they have other reasonable audit procedures in place, then I vote in favor of it. The biggest complaint I heard was from a voter who recalled the old-fashioned machines that let you swing one lever to vote for an entire ticket: the Fox candidates on the left column, CBS in the middle, or the Comedy Channel candidates on the right, to cite the example from today’s ballot.

So what’s the chance of one of these new voting systems throwing the election into another prolonged nightmare similar to that of four years ago? My prediction is this: While the business of legally challenging votes, voters, and voting machines has risen (or fallen) to unprecedented levels thanks to the Florida experience in 2000, polling officials themselves have gotten smarter than ever. And no matter what their political affiliation, none of them wants to be spending Thanksgiving counting chads from paper ballots.

My bet is that by the time you read this, the election will be over. For the winner, be it the guy from Fox or the one from CBS, the mess in Iraq will be just beginning.

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