On Voting

WARNING: THIS POST IS NOT PHOTO RELATED. DON'T WORRY, IT'S NOT POLITICAL EITHER. For those of you who perhaps live in another country or under a rock, today is election day in the United States. We got up at 5:30 this morning to get to the polling place down the street when they opened at 6:00AM. That way we get it out of the way and don't have to worry if the lines get longer as the day goes on.

I'm not going to talk about the candidates or policy or my predictions, but I would like to say a little bit about the process which is in dire need of serious repair.

First is the mechanism In my life I've voted in three different states. In two of them they used fill-in-the-bubble 'ScanTron' forms like the SAT tests used to (Remember your #2 pencil?), in another they used the big old machines with the levers like in the movies. Then there were the punchcards in Florida in 2000 which caused all the hanging chad problems, and some people use different computer systems, mostly from private firms from what I've seen. All of them have different rules, layouts, fonts, and workflow.

All of this seems insane to me looking down from an objective viewpoint. I understand that the Constitution says that the states shall organize their own elections and that we're the United STATES of America, which is to say that states have some autonomy. However to leave this tragically important stuff up to 50 separate committees who I'm sure don't get nearly the resources they need is crazy, and leads to confusion and massive amounts of waste in the process.

At my polling place this morning, you walked in where they checked the rolls to send you to the correct precinct desk, where they looked you up again, had you sign-in and gave you a fill-in-the-bubble form as well as some other index size card with some numbers and my name on it. You then go behind some dividers to fill out the form. Then go get in another line where some person takes your index card and you get in line to feed your form into a scanner. The scanner eats your paper and says "Your vote has been counted" on the screen.

First off, the people working there were polite and excited and trying very hard, but were being told on the job how to do their job. Don't you think they all could have met up for an hour of training yesterday or something? Then you had to figure out exactly where you were supposed to go next, there was no obvious flow. I have no idea what that index card was for other than to say that I picked up a form from one person and then scanned it later with another. And the woman at the scanner had me put the form face-down. Heather's person told her to put it face up. Which was right? Who knows, as there was no marking on the paper or scanner directions saying "place face down" or "this arrow first" or whatever. I know it said my vote was counted, but isn't there some way to show on the screen, "Here are your votes as I've read them. Are they correct?". Then perhaps it could print me out a little receipt so that I could prove whom I voted for if it ever came down to some kind of recount procedure.

Personally as a computer nerd, I think computerizing the process is the way to go. Simple standardized touch screen system of some kind. However the systems currently being used are proprietary, expensive, and seriously flawed from a security perspective. This should not be the purview of a private company.

If we're going to continue to vote in a physical public place, this is what should happen:

1) An open source election software system should be developed. Based on Linux, signed code, & standards-based encryption for example, to make it completely open so anyone can look through the code for backdoors and bugs to prevent tampering. Security in a forum this public should not be though obscurity. Encrypted logs and printed receipts should be available. It's all about cryptographic verification, transparency, and audit trails. In Australia, voting machine software is under a free software license as it should be. Nowadays the hardware to run this kind of thing should be very cheap and should become exponentially cheaper as time goes on. In 2004, India used a domestically designed and built voting machines to enable their parliamentary elections. Surely we could do better 8 years later. Maybe there's even a simple hardware standard companies could build from. Smart people could make this happen.

2) Get a group of the top information and graphic designers, people like Edward Tufte, to come up with a simple template to be used on all ballots across the country and have it released it into the public domain. That way there would be less confusion on whom you're actually voting for, especially when people move state to state. You could also use this layout to teach voting to school children so they know what to expect. It should be simple and obvious and easy enough to use even without instruction.

There are bills floating around Congress to do some of the stuff like I'm suggesting above, but I think they've all got to get on the stick and make it actually happen. Then again, this all begs the question of why we have to go to a location to vote in the first place. You could certainly keep public polling places as an option for those who don't have access to the internet at home, but if the 5 hour long lines in Florida and Ohio have taught us anything it's that there has to be a better way. Questions of identity could be dealt with. There are a number of countries in Europe that have internet voting systems for instance.

Gotta Do It I wrote a tweet this morning saying that I took the 'Right to Vote' for granted when I was younger. The older I get the more seriously I take it (hence getting up at 5:30 to be near the front of the line.) However in America only 56% of eligible voters actually cast votes in 2008. Only slightly more than half, and that's an embarrassment. It's gone down in the past 50 years, but not by as much as you think. Even in 1960 the number was only around 60%. If you look at the number of women and minorities that fought for generations so that you could have the right that you're throwing away, it's crazy. Personally I think voting should be compulsory like it is in Mexico, Australia, Brazil, and others. Have an option for 'None of the Above' for those people who want to make a point, but have them stand there and make that decision. Our country would be better off for it. People would feel like that had a more direct connection to the officials making decisions. Kids should be taught that it's not just a right, but their duty as a citizen to have a voice in their society.

I'll get off my soapbox now. This is all to say, if you live in the US and are registered, make sure you go vote. The future depends on it.