The Post-Trust Society
On Tuesday, at approximately 6:40 a.m., the Diebold optical scanner didn’t like what it tasted. The machine regurgitated the first ballot, and the second, and the third, and more after that.
“Maybe it’s actually a shredder,” one of my fellow poll workers said.
Using the registrar-provided mobile phone, I tried to call the registrar’s troubleshooter hotline. “Due to high volume, we cannot answer your call now,” a recorded voice answered. “Please try back again later.”
“They should have outsourced tech support,” said another poll worker.
“How do you know they didn’t?” someone asked.
With a little faith-based finesse and divine intervention, the scanner finally proved workable. The morning improved. So did our mood.
This was my first experience as a poll worker. A neighbor had nominated me. When I tried to wiggle out of the job, my wife suggested that I should practice what I preach. So at 6:30 a.m., I had slouched toward this corner house a few blocks from my house, its garage door open, where I have voted for a decade.
Ever wonder why most poll workers seem to be getting on in years? The reason is the job ages you. A veteran poll worker advised, “It’s a short day. The first 100 hours are the longest.”
These citizens pursued their duties with scrupulous efficiency, handling the ballots with the care a trucker might take with cases of nitroglycerin. We may no longer trust the election process, but don’t blame the poll workers.
They may be last honest folks standing. Or sitting.
In The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, Ralph Keyes, a former San Diegan, argues deception has become the American way of life. We lie, he says, often with no real reason. According to one study, 28 percent of conversations among friends contained conscious lies; 77 percent among strangers.
“In the post-truth era, we don’t just have truth and lies but a third category of ambiguous statements that are not exactly the truth but fall just short of a lie,” he argues. “Enhanced truth, it might be called. Neo-truth. Soft truth. Faux truth. Truth lite.”
Sounds like the 2004 presidential campaign to me. By Keyes’s measure, we get the campaigns we deserve. The professionally packaged, enhanced neo-truths of this campaign were small acts of domestic terrorism. The first casualty of lies – in a campaign or a home — is trust.
Welcome to the post-trust society.
As the polling check-in assistant, I helped voters sign in. My instructions, provided by the official poll worker election guide, were to ask each voter for his or her name and address; in most cases, no ID would be required or requested. Yet, voter after voter whipped out a driver license or military ID.
“Do they always show you their ID?” I asked my poll captain, who has been hosting polling in her garage for over three decades.
“They didn’t used to. Not this much.”
She said the trend started a couple years ago, and increases with every election. This election, at least half of the voters produced their IDs without being asked. What’s going on here? Perhaps they’ve heard so much about voter intimidation and suppression that they assume they’ll be carded.
Here’s another, more troubling, possibility. Since 9/11, Americans have become accustomed – too accustomed — to producing their IDs, especially if they travel frequently. New, post-trust products help us do this. Recently, I bought a wallet with a see-through pocket on its outer surface, enabling me to show my ID quickly. Security is a good thing, most of the time. But a conditioned reflex to produce an ID without being asked is not.
In the post-trust society, we’re guilty until proven innocent.
Current punditry holds that Bush triumphed because he attracted the so-called morality vote – voters appalled by gay marriage, stem cell research, and abortion. By this view, it’s not “the economy, stupid,” it’s “the morality, heathen.” I have trouble with this suddenly-popular analysis.
It suggests that people who voted for Kerry are not equally committed to morality, or that moral arguments cannot be made on both sides of these issues. It also neglects to mention the moral reasoning or religious sensibility that objects to a foreign policy that has killed tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq, or policies that neglect the hunger and hurt of the least of our own citizens.
A more precise analysis might be: it’s the traditions, friend.
During a time of fear, technological change and lack of trust, people don’t like their traditions messed with, whether it’s the traditional definition of marriage, a cross on a hill, or the way they vote.
As I helped my fellow poll workers pack up the ballots late Tuesday night, I was impatient and irritated. I wanted to be home watching the election results. Then I remembered I was holding the results in my own hands. Slowing down and doing this job right was a matter of trust.
Louv’s column appears on Sundays.