Saturday, October 28, 2006

"Don't Be Cynical"

I don't know why, but recently I've felt like writing that in really big letters on any wall that's in front of me. I haven't followed through on that impulse, though; thus cynicism continues.

Elsewhere in the world of random thoughts: Via every political blog I keep up with (initially via Josh Marshall) I read this story in the Washington Post earlier in the week about an electronic voting machine glitch that's truncating candidate names in a couple of districts in VA near mine. Most prominently, in what's become a high-profile U.S. Senate race between the Republican incumbent, George Allen, and the Democratic challenger, Jim Webb, the good guy's name is chopped down on the screen to "James H. 'Jim'". This bothers me a lot more than I would have expected it to -- I think because it offends me in terms of both political process and software design methodology. (Problems always seem to make you madder when you can make some informed guesses about how you would have avoided them. Let's show some more rigor in the requirements-gathering phase of that balloting machine contract, people.) It bothers me that election officials across the country seem so frequently cavalier about using systems with severe stability or usability issues; for something as allegedly fundamental to our nation as our electoral process we should enforce higher quality standards instead of blithely assuming that it can't possibly have that much of an effect on our elections.

Anyway, I was talking about this over drinks with some friends last night and someone floated the idea that there ought to be a guy named James H. Jim somewhere in the state who may soon be able to make a reasonable legal claim that he should be Senator. In general we discussed ideas about how to get elected by being something other than what people think they're voting for. My theory is that I could handily win any Federal election if I legally changed my name to "Free iPod".


Blogger Jack said...

Yeah, but this isn't as bad as it sounds at first. The full name still appears when you actually make your vote, and you'd have to be pretty slow to get confused by the shortened version of the name on the confirming screen.

Not to say they shouldn't fix it, and not to say voting machines aren't trouble for other reasons.

Free iPod has my vote. When I showed up to vote in the primary this summer someone outside the site said to me "Vote Ned Lamont, free beer!" When I got him to repeat this it turned out he'd actually said "3B," as in "make selection 3B on the voting machine to vote for Lamont." I thought, Man, I could have used that voting fraud beer.

10/28/2006 3:31 PM  
Blogger Nate said...

Granted, it's not nearly as problematic as machines that lose votes, or log way too many votes, either due to software glitches or poll workers' inability to work the machines correctly. (There are also machines with serious security flaws, though collectively there doesn't seem to be much interest in addressing that.) But as much as I'd like to assume the electorate can deal with technically simple issues like not being able to see candidates' last names or party affiliations when they first make their selection ("Don't Be Cynical") I still have a problem with assuming the workarounds are going to be adequate just because "you'd have to be pretty slow to get confused".

Whether it's fair to harp on this as opposed to the many, many other flaws in every balloting method we've ever used, I don't know. Again, though, from a system design standpoint this particular glitch seems like a pretty avoidable miscommunication, so I think it's really dumb that it's an issue in the first place, much less that it was detected so late.

10/29/2006 9:33 AM  

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