Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Thinking About Voting Techs: e-Luddite or e-Propriate?

[via Contra Costa Times]
Predictions of widespread delays in posting results of the Feb. 5 presidential primary due to a shift to paper ballots in nearly two dozen counties failed to materialize, said California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. "In 57 of 58 counties, the election results came in roughly at the same time as they had in previous elections," Bowen [said].

Would digital-utopians incline to call Bowen a luddite for preferring appropriate tech that actually works over hype-tech, er, "high-tech" that works only to make some incumbent interests richer and more influential?

Surely not. The plain fact is that a paper ballot is actually no less "technological" than a touchscreen is. The question at hand is which technology is the appropriate one, which is the better system given the circumstances and constraints and capacities at hand?

Digital systems were introduced to solve some problems, to facilitate access for differently enabled people, for one thing (although it has never been explained why paper trails are incompatible with providing such access).

But the truth is that their sudden, sweeping, costly adoption across the country also rode a wave of digital fetishism and handwaving public relations that had little connection to real problem solving.

And just as true now, the blanket demonization of touchscreen voting systems (whether they are proprietary or not, whether they provide paper trails or not) now functions sometimes as a comparable distraction from problems in our election system, as fairly traditional forms of voter fraud, intimidation, and disenfranchisement, especially by Republicans, do far more damage in key election contests than the tinkering around the edges they may have exploited through vulnerabilities in digital voting systems in others.

What is lost in so much of this is an awareness of how abstract and undercritical ideas of the "technological" in some more vacuous but emotionally charged construal seem so often to attach to these systems, sometimes freighted with unrealistic hopes (especially by lobbyists and marketing departments eager to sell their often questionable wares), sometimes invested with overwrought dread (especially by people who have been burned by incumbent elites too many times already), and that these unruly passionate abstractions derange sensible deliberation about voting technologies -- as they derange sensible deliberation about so much technodevelopmental change more generally, medical, media, military, industrial, agricultural, and so on.

Personally, I think anonymous paper ballots coupled with exhaustive mediated transparency of the handling and counting of these ballots, together with the generous provision of assistive technologies to facilitate voting for the variously differently enabled is the way to go. Advocating paper and curtained booths and comparable old-school techs that work well enough around the world already over costly untried vulnerable newfangled systems (for the most part) should surely be regarded as a sensible rather than a luddite perspective…

But, then, so should advocating permaculture practices over industrial petrochemical agriculture, solar roofs over nuclear plants, net neutrality over copyright extension, universal access to clean water over investments in narcissicistic lifestyle meds for elites, and yet techno-utopians bloviate about the luddism in all these sensible technodevelopmental priorities while offering up hype-tech promises to justify diversions of money and attention always in the service of incumbent interests.

(And let me add quickly, by way of a conclusion, that those who want our elections to be more reliable, relevant, and fair should probably be focusing their energies more on public financing of elections, instant runoff voting, felon re-enfranchisement, uniform voting standards across the country, and making Election Day a national holiday.)


Greg in Portland said...

In a perfect world where the voting machines all run Linux and the voting software is open source I might think they were a good idea. In the real world and having worked in the computer field I can say that I wouldn't trust most of my former cow-orkers to correctly tally the number of wheels on a motorcycle. It's not just the incompetence but the wingnut, proto-fascist culture that pervades the whole field.

Paper ballots 4ever.

Dale Carrico said...

I'm strongly inclined to agree with you on this, Greg.