Previous month:
March 2011
Next month:
May 2011

Better Voting With Technology

Dan Grobstein supplied the following:

We seem to have a lot of non-mechanical voting machines in the US. Locally we used to have machines with a row of levers. You'd pull down your choice and when you open the curtain with the red handle, it would bring the levers back up and increment a counter in the back.

Today we have a listing built into a membrane keyboard. You push the embedded switch opposite your candidate's name. I little green led lights up and when you move the red handle to open the curtain it counts the vote in the machine.

Some jurisdictions have touch screen voting which prints out a receipt showing your vote.

I don't trust it.

When you go to the ATM you get a receipt for your transaction. Since it is your money, you should know what should be there and tomorrow you can check that your deposit or withdrawal was actually added or subtracted from your balance. When you get gas at the pump, you see your fuel gauge shows full and you have a receipt for an amount for what used to be a mortgage payment and the dollars and gallons should have a good relationship to what shows on your fuel gauge.

If you vote for candidate X and the machine gives you a receipt for candidate X, how do you know that it didn't count candidate Y internally?

If you have a paper ballot, how do you know that your ballot will be counted as you marked it? In Florida in 2000 we had hanging chads, pregnant chads, ballots with more than one candidate selected. In Alaska we had people misspelling LIsa Murkowski's name and Joe Miller challenged these ballots. We had people circling the checkbox and these ballots were not allowed.

In order to have a fair election you need to have an accurate count.

You need to know how many ballots were actually cast.

You need to count by machine so that results can be published in a timely manner.

You need to count each and every ballot.

You need to be able to hand count a subset to check accuracy.

Years ago the transit companies figured out a way to keep their drivers honest. They were working without supervision and collecting cash fares from the public. They put a bell and counter into the streetcar and when a passenger came aboard and the fare was collected, the bell would ring and the counter would increment. This kept the drivers honest because the passengers would complain if they didn't see this happen. Why should they have to pay to ride when somebody else isn't. And why should they have to work hard for their pay packet when the driver is pocketing fares?

I'd like to see a bell and counter on the wall at every polling place. When you cast your vote the bell goes off and the counter goes up by one.

At the end of the night we would know exactly how many ballots were cast at each polling station.

For the ballot itself, I'd like to see a modified OCR system.

We can have a touchscreen where you pick the candidate. The screen would show your choices. It could be multiple screens or just one depending on how many things we're voting on.

You would touch the candidate's name that you want to vote for. The machine would be programmed so that you would have to vote for the correct number of candidates for each position.

When you're happy with your choices you would touch the PRINT button. A clean, crisp, clearly and legally marked paper ballot would come out showing your choices. You would look this over to make sure that it is accurate and you would then feed it into the OCR scanner which would read the ballot, ring the bell and increment the counter.

At the end of the night the machine would indicate how many ballots it had which would match the counter on the wall. The results would be available immediately and could be communicated to the central counting facility. And the ballots could be hand counted if necessary for checking and there wouldn't be any illegal ballots.

There would be no ballot box stuffing, no dead people voting, no filled ballot boxes suddenly found in the storeroom.

Each voter would make sure that his ballot was correctly marked and the machine would make sure that it was clear and legal. OCR is very accurate and with a standardized printed ballot without any hand markings it would be 100% accurate.
The equipment already exists in ATMs.

At the local Bank of America the ATM accepts checks or stacks of up to 40 bills without an envelope. You feed them into the slot and it sucks
it in and reads the amount and shows an image of the check on the screen.

If a bill is too crumpled it will spit it back out and keep the rest.

I don't see why that can't be scaled up to accept an 8.5x11 sheet of paper or even 8.5x14 if the ballot gets too big.

The machines already capture the checks, ocr them and put the amount into the database and keep the checks and cash in a secure lockbox. Why not do the same for ballots?




The Conspirators

4 stars out of 5
There is nothing about this film I didn't like. I think Robert Redford is a genius, and our politics mesh perfectly. James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein wrote a terrific story which Solomon made into a pitch-perfect screenplay. Historical docudramas usually get so much wrong, but I teach U.S. history, and they got more right than they got wrong in this one.   Robin Wright plays Mary Surratt, accused of being part of the confederate plot to assassinate Lincoln (which is shown briefly at the start of the film). She is no angel, but the film raises almost as many doubts about her guilt as  James McAvoy who plays her attorney  Frederick Aiken. The trope is familiar; he doesn't want to defend a reviled person, his friends abandon him, he soldiers on. The hissable villain of this piece, as he was in life, was Edwin Stanton played, accurately, by Kevin Kline as the Donald Rumsfeld of  his day. That is, a constitution-shredding worshipper of the proposition that the end justifies the means. If you have the slightest interest in American history, or any affection for any of the main actors, this is a must-see.

Caroll Cat Column, Silent Correction, Dan Grobstein File

Another top-rate cat column from America's most underrated daily newspaper columnist, Jon Carroll.

From the discussion list of my college paper:

Next time you feel the need to make a silent correction, just go ahead and do it -- after all, it's good enough for congress. (Not intended to be a factual statement.)


Dan Grobstein File

  • From the BBC: Avoiding the anti-social network - what to do to dodge online darkness

  • The federal labor board has sought to reinterpret and more vigorously enforce the rules governing employers and employees.

  • Selling government assets is the biggest scam. You get short term money which helps you mask the consequences of lowering taxes on the rich, but you lose all the future use and income from them. It's just robbing the commons for a select few. Chicagoans will pay more for parking for the rest of their lives and the city lost the future revenue and has already spent the bulk of the sale price. You sell the Indiana turnpike and the new owners can raise tolls without any political consequence and take the money. 

    Just look at the changes taking place thanks to all the angry new governors. 

  • Matt Taibi in rolling stone has been all over this. But I wasn't aware who the marquee representative was.
    Why did Spencer Bachus, chairman of the Financial Services Committee, introduce legislation to delay the regulation of derivatives

Mali Journal

My older daughter, M, is in the Peace Corps in Mali. Her internet access will soon be much less frequent, so enjoy these journal entries while you can!

[This is an English translation of the coverage of her swearing-in ceremony on the web page of the Malian television service]

Last night we had our thank you dinner for our host families. My sister O came, she was the only older sister who I really talked to, primarily because she was the one who was confident enough to speak to me in French. She is the oldest daughter still at home, so she pretty much runs the household for forty people despite being 18. My brother A was basically head of household since the father had passed away, and he's only 24. I thought about inviting A2, but I'm glad I invited O because I think it was probably more special for her to get to leave the compound and go have a nice meal. She does go to Bamako sometimes for family stuff, but in general men can leave whenever they want, but women are stuck at home unless it is a wedding or funeral. L and J also invited host sisters, so that also made it less awkward. We had chicken and fries, and they made a point of telling everyone to wash their hands beforehand, which is an ongoing battle here (most Malians who do "wash" their hands don't normally use soap). I wish I could have invited one of the three or four year-old kids too, because J and L's sisters were both also moms of small children they got to come to the event, but O's not married yet, so there was no reason for her to bring one of the babies.

Today I went to the suguba ("big market") in Bamako for the first time. We started with lunch at Broadway Cafe (expat diner), but we miscommunicated between the trainees and half of us ended up at one location and half at the other. Ultimately it worked out though, because if we'd stayed together we wouldn't have been able to catch a cab or make any decisions. The market was basically just a bunch of small roads with vendors. I was expecting something different, but I guess that is why we're told not to set expectations, ever. It was hot and tiring, but I got some fabric, a head wrap, and some gold sandals for swear in. There's an option to go back into Bamako tomorrow morning for more shopping, but I think I might just wait until we go into the American Club in the afternoon for lunch so I'm less dirty and exhausted for the pool.

It turns out they rented a bus to take us to Sikasso, so we don't have to take public transport all the way to our regional capitol the day after swear in, and since I'm so far off the main road, it sounds like they are actually going to drive me and all of my stuff directly to site, which will be nice, and possibly less of an adventure than transporting it on a donkey cart, but again, I shouldn't set any expectations. It still could turn into an adventure.

Mali Journal

My older daughter is a Peace Corps trainee in Mali, coming up on her swearing-in:

Yesterday we went on a fieldtrip to a woman's cooperative that makes shea butter products.  Now that I know where I'm going and what I'm going to be doing it is nice going on these types of fieldtrips because I know what is going to be directly applicable to my service, like this for example.  I am actually going to be working with shea, so the whole trip was extra interesting.  The group we visited actually really had their stuff together.  They are sponsored by a Canadian NGO and have a Peace Corps volunteer helping them, so they're getting a lot of outside help, but still, they seemed to have good quality control, good marketing, and a good product.  It is definitely a product (shea butter moisturizer, conditioner, and soap) that I could see selling well in California, and they even got Fair Trade certification recently, which will help them attract even more investment.  The Canadian NGO is called maison de la karite.  I haven't looked them up yet, but I hear they have a webpage, and I may try to partner with them too if they work in Sikasso.

Swearing in is the evening of the 12th, but we're going drinking/eating/dancing Monday night.  It will be funny to see everyone in their western clothes.

Our Associate Peace Corps Director is Macki, a Malian National, and he is basically my boss now. He made a good point the other day when we were talking about tech exchanges (taking our homologues (Malian counterparts) to see other PCVs (volunteers) to see how their projects are going). He said that we shouldn't skip too many steps. If my women's association is just gathering nuts and I take their president to see the organization I went to the fieldtrip to visit then they might get too ambitious, when the next logical step would just be to process the nuts and sell the butter, not to jump right to buying equipment or making soap, which might be unobtainable right now. So I really need to see what they're actually doing on the ground, which is what the next two months are about anyway.

So, we got our schedule for Monday, and we're going shopping in the morning, and then we're going to lunch, then we're checking into a hotel in groups of five, and then we're going to eat dinner at the hotel and head to three clubs/bars in the expat area of town. They're arranging most of the transportation, and have arranged things with the clubs because we're going to be 60 trainees and about 200 volunteers, so people need warning that we're coming. It should be an interesting night. Then Tuesday we come back here to Tubaniso, and we all get bussed out together to the presidential palace in the afternoon for a five pm swear in and reception.


Source Code

4 stars out of 5
Welcome to the Inception age in Hollywood, however brief it may be. I recently read a commentary that noted that Inception was a wildly original science-fiction movie that was also wildly successful. As a result, since imitation is the sincerest form of Hollywood, we are going to be flooded during the next year with wildly original science-fiction movies with original stories. Adjustment Bureau was probably the thin edge of the wedge (even though it was an adaptation, the source material was not well known). And now, Source Code: an American film with American actors (Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga) that isn't boring and utterly predictable! Ben Ripley's original script (not a Comic Book! Not a sequel!) is directed to perfection by Duncan Jones. I am something of an expert on "time loop" movies (of course, this isn't really a time loop, as the script points out several times), since Groundhog Day is my favorite film. This is a first-class effort in that "genre," with incremental and interesting change in each repetition of events. Probably a little too much information on how it works (a trap Groundhog Day avoided), but it turns out we need it to even begin to understand the very confusing ending. This is like a murder mystery, with the gradual revelation of clues about what is going on, as an Air Force pilot is sent back, over and over, to the last eight minutes on a train before it crashes. The special effects in the bomb blast scenes are chilling and, frankly, scary, something I wasn't sure could still be achieved in the CGI era. If you are interested in a meditation on the nature of reality, and /or its mutability, this movie provides a thinking person's science fiction look at the subject.