PERPETUAL GIFTING

Posted in Quick Hits on November 12th, 2008 by Ed

Read through the comments in Ron Brownstein's piece on Palin's polling numbers. Am I wrong to feel like this is too good to be true? Every second that the right insists that she is their savior takes them farther away from getting back into power.

WITHER CHICANERY?

Posted in Election 2008, Rants on November 12th, 2008 by Ed

If I may go all Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for a moment, I believe that the single most important aspect of any election is that, regardless of whether or not my preferred candidate wins, the outcome is widely accepted as legitimate. Elections decided in court are tremendously harmful to the political process. It is very, very important that at the end of Election Day one side says "Hey, we won!" and the other says "Yup, we lost." Our entire system is founded on this simple nod to legitimacy. The losers do not, as so often happens in troubled parts of the world, arm themselves to the teeth and revolt in open warfare because they lost. Our political process needs to work like a boxing match – beat the hell out of one another until the bell rings and then embrace afterwards as a sign of mutual respect.

For all the talk about the potential for voter fraud in 2008, the election largely went off without a hitch. I encourage you to correct me and cite an example if there is a "Diebold Surprise" story that I missed. In my voracious consumption of all things election related over the past week I have come away with the impression that both sides believe that the results accurately reflect the vote. With the exception of the fringe-right (who are going to rant about how ACORN and homeless black illegal immigrant crackheads stole the election no matter what) the outcome is not in dispute.

As an avowed electronic voting machine skeptic, I admit being surprised by this turn of events. Even in Pennsylvania, with its Keystone (see what I did there?) Kops transition from paper to touch screens, what issues arose never escalated beyond the level of inconvenience. Here in Indiana we executed our third straight touch-screen election without a hitch. Many other jurisdictions did likewise. Has electronic voting been vindicated?

Well, yes and no.

After a good deal of reflection I've realized that electronic voting does some things at least as well as paper and even does a few things better. It certainly makes counting easier. Many voters note that there is something "unsatisfying" about just pushing buttons rather than holding something tangible – a product of one's efforts – and dropping it in the lock box. Personally, I can't shake the "Does anything actually happen when I press this button?" feeling. But the more I thought about it, all voting is a black box (pun intended). Just as I have no idea whether or not this electronic machine actually submits a vote when I hit the buttons, I have no idea where my ballot goes when I drop it in the box. For all I know the EVM isn't even connected to anything; for all I know my paper ballot is thrown into a dumpster and burned after I walk away. Maybe it gets lost. Maybe one of the 153 year old poll workers spills coffee and Poli-Dent all over my ballot and it becomes unreadable. I have been operating under lousy logic in believing that electronic voting is any more mysterious than the alternative.

Unfortunately it is very easy to stand in the glow of an election which largely went off without a hitch and say "Hey, EVMs are pretty cool after all!" It's tempting but should be resisted because the fatal flaw in the system is latent. The system either works very well (as in 2008) or, when something inevitably goes wrong one of these years, it is a complete disaster. There isn't much middle ground. When the system fails there is no safety net. Eventually there will be a "whoops, the results got erased somehow" moment and only then will it be apparent – ah, so this is why this was a bad idea all along.

I'm glad that things went smoothly this year, but to use this as impetus to change my feelings about electronic voting would be the Survivor's Bias in action – everything worked out so I guess the system is OK. That is poor logic. Say what you will about paper and punch cards, but such ballots can be re-counted. They can be kept in boxes for posterity. With EVMs, votes which are not properly recorded for whatever reason are simply gone. The criteria for choosing a voting method cannot be how it performs under ideal circumstances; it must be how the system reacts when everything is inexorably fucked up. Paper, for all its flaws, wins because it is more robust under uncertainty. The real danger with EVMs is not insidious hackers altering election results as so many of us have feared – it is the all-or-nothing nature of the system, a flaw that will be all too apparent when random, unpredictable error inevitably strikes.