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January 18, 2012

The voting booth: democracy’s parking meter

On a recent jaunt about town, my son and I had occasion to use one of our city’s quaint, retro parking meters. The meter required the use of coins, which are also quaint and retro, sort of like books or attention spans.

The need for actual non-plastic, non-paper currency led us to a comical, acrobatic search through the car, which resulted in enough small-denomination coins to keep us safe from civilization’s sexiest sentinel, the meter maid. But the frantic search and the anachronistic clink of coins dropping into the meter left us scratching our heads: In this era of smart phones and scan codes, how on earth have coin-operated parking meters survived?

Today, it’s possible to buy groceries, gas and a ticket to Japan without ever involving another human or actual legal tender. And when you get to Japan, you’ll find entire cities whose populations run on phone-operated vending machines selling piping-hot gourmet meals. Couldn’t our city retrofit parking meters to accept dollar bills before they also become obsolete?

Alas, nothing ruins a good rant like having your prayers answered. Louisville recently installed three prototype solar-powered, “smart” parking meters on Muhammad Ali Boulevard. The meters accept coins, currency, credit cards and smart cards, and will eventually accept payments via phones or Internet, so you can add time to your meter from afar in case you get stuck in a time-consuming business meeting or nooner.

Suck on that, Japan! Finally, a new day is dawning. Maybe we don’t need Mitt Romney after all.

Of course, this fancy technology comes at a price: Each smart meter costs $7,000, as opposed to an analog meter’s $700 price tag. Why so expensive, especially when soft drink vending machines now commonly accept credit cards, cash or coins? Well, this is America, so it’s probably $100 for the hardware and $6,900 extra so the CEO of the company that makes the machines can install sapphire ballcocks inside the 24-karat gold toilets in his summer mansion in Vail.

Coincidentally, at about the same time the city was installing the meters, my wife, who is a self-employed therapist, was installing an app called “Square” (squareup.com) on her phone. This free app comes with a small credit-card reader that plugs into her phone. Square converts her phone into a credit-card terminal, which lets her clients pay on the spot. The money is transferred to her bank account the next day, and Square charges a small fee for the transaction.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. I’m thinking that, for about $100 worth of smart phone, Square app and duct tape, Louisville could convert any old-fashioned parking meter into a smart meter, saving the city $6,900 a pop! We could then parlay the savings into something else we desperately need: a new basketball arena so the Cards will play better.

Ha ha, just kidding. But maybe we could update our antique voting booths. Young people who are used to instantaneously sexting their genitals to loved ones must think America’s church-basement booths look as antediluvian as coin-operated meters.

Can a society that’s capable of mailing you a high-res photo of yourself running a red light truly be incapable of creating a secure, online voting system? Can the nation that produced Siri expect its citizens to continue to fill out ballots in pencil and feed them into machines that look like props from “Lost in Space”?

And while we’re at it, isn’t it time to put our torturous primary system to death? As the GOP clown car drives from state to state passionately appealing to our nation’s most xenophobic voters, the whole spectacle underscores the detachment between American electoral traditions and modern technology. Nowadays, it’s commonplace for news to be broadcast, blogged, tweeted, satirized and forgotten long before it makes the next morning’s Courier-Journal. And now scientists at the Large Hadron Collider are searching for the fabled OMG particle, which could make news happen after it’s parodied. Does an instant-gratification Twitterocracy benefit from having corn caucuses and foolish goose-hunting photo ops?

America deserves a primary system where we can all vote on the same day nationwide, in one sophisticated, secure system that takes advantage of the technology at our disposal, so that we can all get back to what we do best: drinking beer and watching sports. Ideally with smart parking meters outside.