Thursday, May 20, 2010

Electronic voting Luddite

After Town Meeting ended Monday night I stayed for a demonstration of an electronic voting system. The idea is that maybe investing some money in high-tech gadgets will make Amherst Town Meeting faster and will save the Town Clerk the work of recording the paper ballots we use for Tally votes.

That's a good idea, and I'm glad electronic voting is being considered. But like a lot of good ideas, I think it might be destroyed on the rocks of reality.

First, it took something like 20 minutes to get the electronic voting software up and running. Not a good start!

Once running, I thought the system was pretty darn spiffy, and easy to use. But a few people had trouble, and managed to be confused even after what I thought was a clear explanation of how the voting works (press the button to vote: your name on the screen changes color. Press an invalid button: your name turns yellow, otherwise it cycles
through a rainbow of colors every time you push.)

Once people understood it, it is extremely fast; we completed a test vote in 30 seconds.

If the system was going to be used for dozens of votes per year, then the costs might justify the benefits. The first one or two TM sessions would likely be chaotic as people are trained or re-trained on how to use the clickers, but after using them a few times I think people would figure them out.

If it's used to just to replace Tally/Standing votes, then I think it's a bad idea. We're more likely to spend more time fussing with the technology ("Point of Order: my battery is dead") and training new Town Meeting members how to use the clickers than the time saved. If I recall correctly, we had just one Tally vote and three (or was it two?) standing votes at the past Town Meeting.

And the up-front cost isn't trivial ($12,000-$22,000).

I was going to write about possible security concerns, but assuming all vote results would become public (just as tally votes are made public), I don't think that would be a problem. What WOULD be a problem is people accidentally pressing the wrong buttons on their clickers, and then suspecting that the system got hacked (or that there's a bug) when they see the vote results and their vote is the opposite of what they intended. With no paper trail, it will be impossible to know what happened, and it will take just a couple of incidents for people to lose confidence in the system.

So I guess I'm an electronic voting Luddite. Keep the paper ballots, and instead of spending more time on electronic voting spend some time figuring out how to make the sound system at Town Meeting better.

Real-time captioning would be wonderful, too-- that'd give us a transcript of the meeting, accessibility for the hearing impaired, and closed captioning for the ACTV broadcast...


Anonymous said...

Make that two Luddites. We don't need it.

Rich Morse

Larry Kelley said...

Make that three.

What we need is a new form of government with W-A-Y less people having the ability to pontificate ad nauseam.