Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bowser the Elusive

Amidst all of the talk of a next-generation voting system and the possibility of my idea of "Bring Your Own Voting Machine," we at the Election Office recently have been having a rather contrarian thought.

What if we simply recommitted to using the voting machines we have for a long time?

"Long time" may not be until the the 12th of Never, but longer than four more years.

Our machines are running on late 1990s technology and many have been in service for 10 years.  The touchscreen capability is four-wire resistive, much more primitive than the iPads and Android tablets of today.

We've provided specific cost estimates for the capital budget, for three years straight, for a scanner-based system and a voting machine system using what's certified today without being able to get them into the county capital budget plan (actually they were in and then taken out this past year).  The cost for each system is comparable, in excess of $10 million.

The argument for taking the dollars out of the budget shifts.  In general, the uncertainty of the Election Assistance Commission, certification in general, and the potential for the crazy new system I've raised seems to give enough cover for those who don't want to do anything to not do anything.

We're coming to the next capital budgeting process with a spiffy PowerPoint and a process that allows us to create a Request for Proposal with vendor input and analyze all solutions--including those not certified--before determining the right course.  We know, however, that if we had to make a decision today that we would pick a system like the one we already have costed and provided to the county.

I fully expect that during that time we will be told the equivalent of, "Good process, Mario--but our princess is another castle!"

No matter.  Kansas statutes direct the Election Commissioners to print the ballots (which includes voting machines and tabulation systems) and to annually provide a budget to conduct the election and that the county commissioners shall provide funding.

That's not really an optional thing (hence the word "shall") and one day, despite my requests for the last four years that the quotes I've provided be used for the budget, if the millions of dollars we will need are not baked into the budget, they still will need to be spent.

Bowser, eventually, will be defeated and the princess will be saved.

The big risk of delaying is that we've seen previous versions of voting machines have parts that fail, and fail quickly.  Power supplies and printers are the usual suspects.

We also know, though, that being the new kid on the block to be the first to pressure-test a new system has significant risks (Johnson County lived this in 2002 when it became the first county to try to modem results from the polls).

We further know that two vendors have many new and slightly new voting machines in the same model we have (and the one quoted for the new system that we have frequently submitted for the capital budget).

We can get more of them.  We also could got some that have been mothballed in other states, although I believe they have limited value.  We once bid one cent for 500 voting machines in Cuyahoga County and were rejected.

I think that was a fair bid.  We were willing to pay for the transportation, but the machines hadn't been used for a while.  Eventually, that county will have to pay to dispose those machines, much the way I will have to pay to remove my once-cool large screen television from my basement, and having someone take them off their hands at no expense will look like an obvious good deal they passed up.

So "doing nothing" has some intrigue.  We still have to push to get the new system budgeted, but the very idea to type this post likely will provide fodder to again not put our request in the budget.  (Again, this continual ostrich strategy won't eliminate the eventual need).

But I know how new systems will be.  Give a mouse a cookie--or a software developer a project--and just imagine the new ways new technology can slow things down.

Machines will take longer to boot.  Ballots, with the ability to be rendered more user-friendly, will be in color, maybe with a cute splash screen and a logo.

We might see the candidates' photos.  You might have the chance to watch yourself virtually walk up to the candidate and, for instance in a primary, make your selection by pinning the tail on the donkey or the trunk on the elephant of your choice.

Mark my words--it will take longer for a voter to cast a ballot on the systems under development than it does with the systems today.

And that's the beauty of the contrarian idea.  Our machines are the equivalent of that first Nintendo system of the late 1980s.

The graphics are minimal by today's standards, but there was only an A and a B button back then.  ("And that's the way we liked it!")

There was no R or L, X or Y, circle or square, and no gesture.  Madden 2014 looks like the real football game, but it was more fun to rake up 10 sacks a game in Tecmo Bowl where the big graphical push was that the players' uniforms were the correct colors for the NFL teams.

The point of all of this is way back to an earlier post when I played up a great book, Crunch Mode.  John Boddie's words of becoming comfortable working with a system that isn't developed apply to all things strategic.

We have different lanes we're managing, and truly strategic thinkers understand that monitoring several lanes to make the proper decision is necessary.

Not to be all Ferris Buehler here, but I've said it before and I'll say it again:

Voting system design is now a forever thing.  If the cliche "success is a journey, not a destination," is true, the same can be said for voting systems design.  It's a journey. 

I've been saying that here for nearly two years. It's the equivalent of living today simultaneously like it's the last day of your life and with the thought that you'll live forever.

Bowser won't live forever.  But, maybe, a slow pursuit gets us to the Bring Your Own Voting Machine castle that we never would have entered otherwise.