crypto and public policy

An Epiphany: We Technologists Don’t Always Get It

Filed under: General December 12, 2003 @ 5:33 pm

I just returned from 2 days at the National Institute of Standards and Technology where we discussed eVoting. I wasn’t expecting much from this conference, but to my surprise I learned a tremendous amount. Most importantly, I got a nice wake-up call: we technologists don’t necessarily have the answers just because we can think logically.

I’m thinking specifically of Robert Cringely’s columns from last week and this week. I am usually a big fan of Cringely’s no-nonsense approach to technology problems, but, as I’ve learned these past few days, his approach to eVoting is too simplistic and thus incorrect.

I’ll keep it short and mention some basic facts:

  • paper receipts in ATMs are very different from paper receipts in elections. What happens, for example, if the printer jams halfway? Do you have to call in the election official and thus reveal your vote? ATMs can function more or less properly even with printer failures. Not so for voting machines. Surely, this problem can be solved, but not simply by taking the ATM printer technology and sticking it on a voting machine.
  • HAVA requires accessibility for all, including the disabled (blind, deaf, etc…). This is a serious issue. We need to have a solution that includes all eligible voters. We also need to take into account that millions of americans are partially disabled (e.g. the millions of eldery citizens who have partial eyesight loss but refuse to admit it) in ways that also make hand-counted paper ballots a poor solution.
  • US ballots are vastly more complicated than Canadian ballots. We vote for more positions (sometimes as many as 50 or more), and we vote for propositions. The complexity of the US ballot means that hand-counting paper ballots is simply not doable given the timeframe that is expected for same-day results. You’ll hear this from almost all election officials: hand-counting paper ballots just can’t be done.

Let’s be clear: many (maybe all) of the current electronic voting systems are questionable. There are proven security issues that need to be fixed. I’m afraid of what might happen to our democracy if we use some of these voting machines without further oversight and auditing.

But let’s not kid ourselves, either. Just because we’re technologists doesn’t mean we have the answers. Voting is hard. Cringely’s columns fail to take into account the points of view of those who have been running elections for years. And to be fair, so did my previous blog posts. Like all IT professionals, we failed to listen to our clients.

The solution to the voting problem will come from a collaboration between technologists and election officials. It will have to include some kind of technology to enable secret votes by those for whom paper is not an option. It will have to include some kind of technology to enable tabulating that is more efficient than hand-counting paper ballots. We don’t have such a solution. Yet.


  1. LA:

    Touch screen voting as an enablement technology for blind people is a specious argument.

    A case in point:

    A friend of mine worked for several years in a video store. One of her customers was blind (he listend to movies). During her tenure there, this customer bought two VCRs – the second after the first one died. The first had clearly delineated buttons, the second had “soft-touch” buttons. Unfortunately for this customer, “real” buttons had gone out of style, so there were no other options at the time.

    After the purchase of the second VCR, this customer called the store every few months to find out if there were any new VCRs with ‘real’ buttons, because he couldn’t use the new VCR by himself – it was too difficult to determine which was the right button by feel.

    A touch screen has even fewer tactile cues. And even if there were some way to cue a blind voter using sound, how would you cue a blind and deaf voter? The right technology would include a braille and ink printout, so both visually-impared and visually-sound voters could verify their votes and demand fix prior to submission of their form if there was an error.

    For paper jams – make the machine open where the voter stands, so the voter can pull their paper out before the technician goes to work. Cash register tape is relatively simple, well understood and robust technology, and it’s dead easy to tear off the right part and straighten out if it jams.

  2. Ben Adida:

    Maybe I misused the term “touch-screen voting” when I should have said “electronic voting machine.” Touch-screen or no touch-screen is irrelevant for this particular discussion (though very relevant to some usability folks). Your argument about tactile buttons is a very good one. That said, we *must* find a way for those blind or deaf voters (and yes, eventually the blind and deaf, too) to vote.

    Note that most blind people don’t read Braille (yes, something else I learned at the conference).

    As for allowing the voter access to the paper printout, there’s a bunch of other issues there: if the user can access the printer, then he can probably screw it up in some way and cause a denial of service attack.

    In the end, my main point is that “let’s just do it the way Canada does it” or “let’s just add paper receipts” is probably not enough. The problem is more complicated.

  3. steven vore:

    Maybe I’m thinking too simply, but I put fort a suggestion three years ago that seemed obvious to me… see my old weblog at

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