It is possible but certainly not easy to cast a vote for someone you don't mean to vote for. I tried. I really tried.
Following Mayor/candidate Willie Herenton's two press conferences last week, I walked over to the Shelby County Election Commission office two blocks from City Hall hell- bent on making voting as difficult as possible, given that the mayor/candidate had said that early voting is flawed by voter error, machine error, and possible skulduggery.
First, I cast my real vote for mayor and City Council. (As of September 24th, a total of 30,000 people had voted absentee or in early voting, according to the Election Commission.)
Then I went and talked to James Johnson, administrator of elections for the commission. With Johnson standing at my side, I voted again on a "demo" machine with a mock ballot featuring such names as Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Things being what they are in Memphis, I suppose I should add that those gentlemen are dead and not running for mayor of Memphis.
The real machine and the demo machine were identical, and they are both identical to the machines being used at early-voting sites around Memphis.
Here's how I tried to break the system. I presented my driver's license, verified my address and Social Security number, and received a plastic card for Machine #4. I inserted the card, and a screen with instructions came up. It explained how to choose a candidate by touching the candidate's name on the screen. After that, an X would appear, which could be erased by simply touching the X.
I went to the next screen where the candidates for mayor appeared in two columns. I deliberately and carefully pressed the line between two candidates several times, erasing my dummy vote each time. By pressing the line, it was pretty much a toss-up as to which name registered as my choice, but the choice was clearly indicated by a white X against a maroon square about the size of a small postage stamp next to a name.
It so happens that the names Willie Herenton and Carol Chumney are right next to each other on the ballot. Herman Morris and John Willingham are in another column.
I voted and erased my vote a dozen times. I tried and failed to make the machine record "Herman Morris" by touching "Willie Herenton" and vice versa. I also touched the line between Herenton and Chumney, with the results I already mentioned.
After my final vote, I touched "next" on the screen, voted for City Council members, and touched "next" again. That put me on a "summary" page where the names of the candidates I had voted for appeared in somewhat smaller although clearly legible type. The names were the same as the ones I had pressed on my final and "real" vote.
So of course I touched "back," erased everything, and repeated the process several more times. I got the same correct result when I went to the summary page. At that point I pressed "cast ballot" and my vote was recorded and I was done.
Johnson told me he is "very confident" in the voting machines and the process, despite Herenton's accusations. He also said it is impossible to state with certainty that any candidate is ahead or has no mathematical chance of winning, because the votes are not counted as to candidate choice by anyone until after the polls close on October 4th. Herenton and campaign manager Charles Carpenter asserted that Herenton is leading and that the race is between him and Chumney. The mayor said an unnamed male candidate has no chance mathematically of winning. Carpenter said this assessment is based on exit polling, phone calls, and their "proprietary system."
With Johnson in tow, I tested the demo machine. I slapped it. I palmed it with an open hand. I poked it with my finger. I poked it with the tip of my pen. I poked two names at the same time. But I could not turn Willie into Herman or Carol into John.
Maybe you can. But — bear with me here — to make a mistake you have to know you made a mistake. Once you press "cast ballot" there is no way of knowing if the machine screws up and records your vote for someone else. And if you goof and get totally flustered, why would you press "cast ballot" before notifying a poll worker of the error? Unless, that is, you wanted to make a stink for the sake of making a stink.