Giving technology a bad name

I read a story today from the Rocky Mountain News. It talks about the total debacle of the Denver voting system on Tuesday. I was hearing about this election night, that there were people waiting in line to vote anywhere from 3 to 5 hours. Part of the blame has been placed on the fact that they had “open precinct” voting, where people from anywhere in the Denver Metro Area could vote at voting centers, away from their geographical precincts. This was supposed to increase voter participation, because people wouldn’t have to rush home to their precincts, from their jobs in Denver.

It doesn’t sound to me like the real glitch was in the software, as the article’s headline claims, but rather in the network infrastructure. This sounds like IT mismanagement to me. No one measured their network capacity. They said that the system had been used in a primary before this last election, and it worked fine. 12,000 people voted then. When tens of thousands of people showed up to vote (much more than 12,000), the network got overloaded. The application that was moving at a crawl was a “poll book” app., which verified people’s voter registration before they went in to vote. The voting systems themselves seemed to be working fine. From reading the article it sounds like they assumed that since the system worked fine for the primary, it would work for the general election. It also sounds like they used a central database, and a web server for their “electronic poll book” app. The application was browser-based.

Some voters stuck around for the few hours it took to get their registration verified. Others just left. As of this writing, the vote counting on statewide issues is still not done either. There’s been talk of firing people in the Denver County Clerk & Recorders office.

What’s kind of interesting about this article is they profile an alternative, cobbled together voter registration system that Larimer County has used for a few years, which has worked fine. They said they used Microsoft Access and an Oracle database. The app. was home grown, and it cost very little to put together. Instead of waiting 20 minutes for the system to respond to one request in Denver, the Larimer County system takes 30 seconds. Larimer County has offered to share their system with other counties.

Anyway, voting went without a hitch in Boulder, Tuesday. I can remember in 2004 when we went to a new fill-in-the-circle paper voting ballot system that we had a real debacle here. Counting the votes took days because the vote counting machines turned out to be incompatible with the paper ballots! They had to all be hand counted. Funny these things don’t get tested before they’re used. It shows you how we truly “care” about our elections. The glitches have been fixed here, even when electronic voting machines were introduced for the first time. So it was a pleasant experience for us Boulderites, except for the long ballot. We had a ton of ballot issues to vote on this year.

People in Boulder have been highly skeptical of the electronic voting machines, so they were slow to arrive here. I’ve become skeptical of them of late, because of a demonstration I saw where a guy slipped a flash memory card into a voting machine, and changed the way it counted votes. That creeped me out. I went with the paper fill-in-the-circle ballot. I feel more comfortable with a paper trail, thanks.

A recurring thought I’ve had around this issue is why don’t we just use computerized equipment that records our votes, using a touch screen, and then prints out a filled-in paper ballot for us that we then stick in the ballot box, rather than a voting system where the votes are kept in its memory? The reason electronic voting machines came into use was because of the 2000 presidential election, where it was difficult in some parts of the country to tell if people voted one way or another because their ballots were not marked or punched out clearly. What was getting messed up was the recording of the vote. Why not use a machine to make marking a ballot consistent? The computer can print out a paper ballot that can then be read by a vote counting machine. After the person finishes voting, they’ll get the printout, and they can review it to make sure it’s marked the way they intended before turning it in. If the printer is running low on ink, that will show up and the voter can complain, and get another printout after the problem has been fixed.

The simpler you make the technology the more reliable it is.

Edit 11/10/06: I remembered today that on the afternoon of the election it was announced that more laptops were being sent to the voting centers in Denver, due to the lines of people waiting to vote. It was later that evening, probably on the 10 o’clock news where I learned that server capacity was blamed for the slow voting process. So more laptops didn’t help. They would’ve slowed down the process more. Server capacity was probably the more likely problem than my network capacity explanation.

Election officials have claimed that there was no way for them to test the system, that the elections were the test. I think this position is irresponsible and false. Sites like Amazon, eBay, etc. have tested their systems to make sure they can handle the traffic. Their ability to stay in business partly depends on that, and I can assure you they get far more traffic than the electronic poll book system did. I’m a web developer and I’ve seen web site profiling tools used for the purpose of testing response time under loads of thousands of requests happening at the same time. These tests can be scaled as well to test for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of requests. It’s just a matter of the computing capacity of the machine that conducts the test. If the City of Denver didn’t have a machine that could conduct the test, there are services they could’ve contracted with that would’ve done it for them. Maybe it was a matter of funds not being available, but in that case I think paper poll books would’ve been more efficient.

There’s been talk of firing the election staff. This would seem like the thing to do, but I would hope they would handle this smartly when it comes to the IT staff. True they didn’t handle this in the best way, but they have seen the system’s weaknesses now, and have probably diagnosed the problems. Getting rid of them and then bringing in a whole new staff would probably not help the situation, because the new staff is not going to understand the voting system at all, coming in. It’s better to have an experienced staff that’s made some mistakes and is willing to improve, than to have one that knows nothing about it.

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One thought on “Giving technology a bad name

  1. I completely agree with you on the note of testing – there’s just no excuse for failing to properly test a new piece of technology.

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