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Memo to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: Sometime before Election Day, stop by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. There on display, in an important and sobering exhibit on voting throughout American history, is an actual butterfly ballot used in Palm Beach County, Fla., in the 2000 presidential election. During oral arguments in Bush v. Gore in December 2000, O’Connor tsk-tsked Florida voters who were too dumb, she implied, to accurately vote for their intended candidates. But looking at the butterfly ballot, it is easy — terrifyingly easy — to see how perfectly intelligent Al Gore voters could think they were doing the right thing and still end up voting for Pat Buchanan. There went the election. For that reason alone, “Vote: The Machinery of Democracy” is an important exhibit to visit. It’s not the Rosetta Stone or the Hope Diamond, but that Votomatic machine displaying the Palm Beach butterfly ballot will send chills down your spine, no matter which side you were on in 2000. And displayed right next to it is another spooky reminder of that amazing post-election period: the dime store magnifying glass that Florida Judge Robert Rosenberg used to examine hanging chads, captured in that bug-eyed photo that is one of the lasting images of the election. The exhibition of butterfly ballots and other voting methods since the early days of the nation is inexplicably jammed into an alcove on the first floor of the museum. This does not make it easy to view all the machines. But it is worth a visit nonetheless, and you can supplement it with a walk across the hall to the exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education — complete with the actual Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter of 1960 Greensboro Sit-In fame. The clear message of the voting exhibition is admirably civic-minded: Every vote counts. And it does give an impressive sense of a nation that has tried to give meaning to democracy through the ballot box for more than 200 years. But it also has a depressing, if unstated, sub-theme: Every vote counts, but every vote might also be miscounted. From early ballot boxes using marblelike balls (ballot comes from the Italian word for “little ball”) straight through to color-coded paper, the Australian ballot, gear and lever machines, punch cards, and now touch screens, each method has its drawbacks, flaws, and potential for abuse. The color-coded single-party ballots were a tip-off to poll workers that could lead to certain ballots getting “lost,” and there’s a replica of an ingenious false-bottomed ballot box that could add a batch of votes to one candidate or another if needed. Even as the technology of voting has improved, it still seems hobbled, a few steps behind the rest of society. Why, even now, does a society that has empowered people to take inane photos with their cell phones, find it so difficult to create a foolproof voting machine? The answer, one is left to suspect, is that it serves some political interest to keep voting difficult or prone to error. That whiff of mischief probably explains why, as we move more rapidly toward touch-screen voting, there is a clamor for an old-fashioned paper trail as a backup. As the exhibit shows, though, the paper ballot is not just a backup method in many parts of the country; it is the only method. A huge color-coded United States map on the floor near the exhibit shows what voting technology will be used in each of the nation’s 3,141 counties in November, and it indicates that in large swaths of Texas and elsewhere, hand-counted paper ballots are still in use. It’s enough to make you wonder if there will again be some massive election foul-up Nov. 2. In which case, it will be a good thing the Smithsonian exhibit runs through January. It will be there to remind us that voting has always been — and probably always will be — one of the untidy rituals of the nation. The National Museum of American History is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. Admission is free.

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