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April 23, 2004

Columbia, Maryland's Paper Ballot Debacle

While everyone is posting about Diebold crashing and burning in California, the news that people who voted using paper ballots in Columbia, Maryland saw their votes thrown out caught my attention. [via Jeanne at Body and Soul.]

I am long familiar with Columbia, Maryland. It's a beautiful city. To read that Columbia, of all places, had stooped to silencing the votes of some of its own residents disheartened me, because I know Columbia's history.

Columbia is one of the first "planned communities" in the U. S. Some of its more wry residents nicknamed it "Stepford." When it was conceived, it was an architectural and urban planning ideal that sought to bring people from all walks of life together to live in utopian harmony. Rich and poor would co-exist. Racial, political, and cultural diversity would be the community's hallmark. Each "village" had its own community center and residential pool to encourage those who lived there to get to know each other. The villages were named and designed based on famous writers including Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. Columbia blessed its streets with names like "Kilimanjaro," "Sylvan Wood," and "Foreland Garth." The words "road," "avenue," and "street" were noticably absent from street names. There were lots of things to do. Every summer I went to the Columbia Festival of the Arts. I even worked lighting for some of the gigs. I went to Merriwether Post Pavilion for concerts and the annual Renaissance Festival. There were several community theatres, libraries, walking paths, and lakes. There was always a lecture, book reading, or interesting class being held somewhere nearby.

Columbia is not supposed to be the sort of city that throws away the votes of its residents.

Columbia still has that forward-thinking and inclusive reputation despite falling far short of the ideal forty years after its creation. Reality got in the way. Even though it has some apartments, Columbia is an expensive place to live. The people who worked at Columbia Mall lived outside the city because, due to their low salaries, they could not afford to live in Columbia. Wealth was fleeting and illusory. While most of the beautiful homes in those cul-de-sacs sported two late-model cars, too many of my friends and acquaintences had filed for bankruptcy. Those that didn't were likely in steep debt. The crime logs looked no different from similar logs of other cities. It seemed to me that Columbia was colorblind as long as you had the appropriately high salary to live there. Even if you did, race relations weren't as great as the dream had hoped they would be. Columbia seemed to me to lean towards the conservative rather than encourage a multitude of political views.

Being a cynic, I was always skeptical of Columbia's utopian reputation. It's a lovely city and I like it, but reality did not match the image. The paper voting debacle exceeds even my low expectations. It runs contrary to the utopian ideal dreamed up forty years ago, and I'm sad to see Columbia stoop to such a low.

Posted on April 23, 2004 at 11:11 AM | Permalink