Saturday, February 8, 2014

Black Cloud Voting

In keeping with recent posts, this will be a yarn again referencing a woman I've never met and a Morrissey song title.

This time, the context is voting equipment.  Or, better said, non-voting equipment used for voting.

It's a concept that has taken hold, with many vendors working some solution related to it.

During a meeting with members of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration this past July, I was talking to co-chair Ben Ginsberg about voting equipment.  I began cranking up the first few notes of my BYOVM yarn.

"What if voters could use their smartphones to call up a sample ballot, complete it, and take it in to the polling place to vote," he postulated.

"Well, that's exactly the point of my---," I began before the Commission's senior researcher Nate Persily jumped in.

"They can do that already!" he said.

At that moment, I felt all yarn engines clicking, ready to shout, "Wait, that was my idea!  Let me bore you with why."  

Nate was so wide-eyed and cheery, though, I realized that such a claim would be futile.

It conjured a time when a good friend of mine explained how he came up with the idea of Beanie Babies before Beanie Babies were, well, Beanie Babies.  I believe him.  No one else would.

Likewise, after watching our toddler son drop many pacifiers years and years ago, my wife and I conceived of the Dinky Dunker, some sort of belt contraption with sanitizing liquid that parents could carry, push down the grubby pacifier into it (much like giving a golf ball a wash at the tee), and--pop!--back to the baby's mouth the pacifier would go.  

If someone invents that, ala the Beanie Babies story, remember you read that here first.

(As a secondary yarn, my favorite book of all time, "Competing for the Future," speaks to this a bit, particularly as a reason for not asking customers to define what they want.  Customers will always talk in today's terms, not in terms of a solution to the problem.  You know you've hit on something when it quickly moves from a future idea to a pedestrian yawner like BYOVM is becoming).

So, Thursday we had a vendor come with a demonstration of different voting systems.  Another came Friday.

All of the national talk and recent coverage about nothing being available for the next generation of voting systems may be true but it won't be true much longer.  Voting systems may represent the next innovation explosion.

And, I do believe they all will allow for the incorporation of smart devices.  

I remember years ago how any network connection was taboo in the voting system world. It pretty much still is, but the network is all around us.  Many of these new systems anticipate tentacles into the network.

We live in a connected world and it's unlikely election administration will stay fenced away.  This is a big change coming with the next-generation voting systems.  Network-centric applications in use on election day are inevitable.

I'm not talking online voting, but online administration using systems, for instance, that can report back through the network exactly how many people have voted at any polling place at any given time of the day.  Other metrics can come back, too.  We'll probably have the ability to know how many people have voted in a specific race at any minute.

If a line is mounting somewhere--we will be able to dispatch a field supervisor to check it out before the supervising judge realizes the place is swamped.  It would be the equivalent of a second checker coming up to help before the first looked up to notice the pile-up that everyone in line had been feeling for a few minutes as their ice cream melted.

When the media asks in a few years how things are going out there, we'll be able to call up a dashboard of activity around the county and answer with precision.

Perhaps a new issue won't be that we won't know how many people will have voted when we get that call, but rather what happens when that information is released.  Would that stir or stifle turnout?

Yogi Berra's "nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded," could be an unintended consequence of saying with confidence that voting has been heavy.  Explaining that only 10 people have voted in the first hour may take the zest out of others to go vote.  Too much information could become our new problem.

The Internet may not be used to vote, but it's presence will be all around the administration of the election.

That would be scary stuff to Bev Harris, (the woman I haven't met that is the subject of this lead and author of "Black Box Voting.")

It's scary enough to me, too--at least enough to continue in my "Think Like the Jetsons, Live Like the Flintstones" election administration approach.  After all, Johnson County initially modemed election results back from the polls in April 2002, but that concept either wasn't ready for prime time or just wasn't ready.

Either way, it didn't work that well, and any community that hand-transports election results back on election night, like we do, can thank that episode as the reason.

There aren't many royalty-free
options for "black cloud," but
I'm sure you get the idea
So, thinking of that, and for whatever reason continuing to think about Morrissey songs since "Now I Am A Was" rattled through my brain with my post 10 days ago, I realized that the future is less "Black Box Voting,"  and more "Black Cloud Voting."

I don't envision elections as dark and scary, neither Black Box-ey nor Black, uh, Cloudy.

But if activists were concerned with a black box sitting between the voter and results, "To The Cloud," isn't a phrase that will give them comfort.  More and more, networks and data servers of some type will be between the voter and the election office.

I think that's a good thing, at least in the context that we'll have more data, faster, and can provide better service to the voter.

But, jeez, here comes a paradigm shift, lady.

It isn't the underpaid, overworked, and understaffed election offices you'll need to worry about.  It's not the big, bad voting machine companies that could create chaos.  One of them, someday, would like to make a sale.  They might want to sell to more than one customer, in fact, and any kind of network vulnerability is the last thing they'll want.

The new round of vulnerabilities will be what we face daily elsewhere in our lives.  They won't even be tied to voting systems, as much as deceptive tactics or even just fear-factor headlines.

(And, sorry, but let's get real, that's what many of the black-box voting headlines were in the first place.)

For instance, we haven't seen credible cases of iPhone malware, but "mobile hacking threats" has been a topic long enough now that it's actually become tired.

As we move from the simple systems we have today, 1990s technology, to the robust systems of the future, we have to realize that there is a whole large group of ne'er do wells who will see opportunities to disrupt our lives in general and elections, specifically.

They will be able to disrupt simply with claims, the equivalent of technology bomb-threats.  They will disrupt with fake attempts to make people, outside of our systems, think they are voting when they aren't.

All this comes with the move to newer technology that we all know is on the horizon.

This phenomena can't be new.  In its own way, technology changes in each cycle led to similar but more primitive worries.

In fact, "Black Box Voting" gives us a good feel for reactions the last time voting systems amped up.  Many of us were not in election administration then, but we know we'll need to be wide-eyed on all fronts as we introduce new technology.

Yes, this yarn has a point--several of them, in fact:

  • Election systems (not just voting systems) are about to see their moment of innovation.
  • We've seen pile-on innovation in other industries, and I really believe that if you're an IT developer, elections is going to be a fun place to be over the next few years.
  • Election offices are going to be more IT-centric.  We're already seeing this, and I predict more than half of election office staff members will be IT-oriented within 5 years.
  • We will need to give a growing amount of mindshare to blocking out new threats.  Election administrators are good at creating security procedures, but we will be spending more time going down what we hope will be blind alleys just to demonstrate that there is no vulnerability.
  • That's because we are about to emerge into a world that simply can't ignore the connected world.  At some point, election administrators will be chastised for not connecting systems, as opposed to today's world where that practice is applauded.
It circles back to the Presidential Commission on Election Administration and their report.  This is the first of two posts related to the voting system recommendations.  

This post is more to acknowledge that we're not just facing the need for a new voting system in Johnson County.  That system will be the catalyst for a whole new way of operating, in ways we can't yet foresee but will be expected to foresee before we spend any money.

The second post will focus on the financial side.  So, that's my blogging homework assignment, to tap out part two.

And that brings a whole 'nother definition of "Black Cloud."  More soon.