Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Column the Examiner Wouldn't Print

This article was written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, but the paper declined to print it because it might appear to be a conflict of interest for me to write about the voting process of an election in which I was a candidate. I'm not going to argue with my editor, but since the article doesn't have any real relevance to my own campaign, I'm quite happy to post it here and will submit a shorter version as a letter to the editor instead.

Technology Fails our Election Night Test

Barrie pioneered electronic voting in Canada, using touch-screen computers since 1997. People worried about accuracy; some even argued computer voting was invalid or illegal. Over the years objections have faded as more areas adopt some form of computerized ballot. The machines now even print a paper back-up, allowing for manual recount.

Americans have used voting machines for over a century, not because they are more eager to modernize, but due to their wider spectrum elections. On the same day with the same ballot, they mark their choice for president, congress, governor, legislature, mayor, councilor, judge, prosecutor, sheriff, comptroller, etc. at federal, state, and local levels. They also face any number of referenda. With the sheer breadth of categories of votes to be cast and counted, technology was applied very early to speed the process. First lever-machines that counted gear revolutions, then pencil-dot or punch-cards, and finally touch-screens have been common. In the uncertain 2000 election results, all these options suddenly came under scrutiny.

Meanwhile, Canadian provincial and federal elections use pencil on paper, viewed by the human eye and counted by hand. To Americans this may seem quaint, but it’s accurate and surprisingly fast both to vote and to count.

Municipal elections add more complexity as you choose mayor, councilor, and trustee. (Some add deputy mayor, board of control, or regional chair). Yet for a century, pencil voting worked just fine.

The key advantage of Barrie’s electronic system is allowing you to use any poll, instead of being assigned one. Theoretically this raises voter turnout. Yet this benefit is achieved by the online voter list, not the voting machines. We could realize the same benefit with the electronic voting list and paper ballots. The main drawback would be the higher volume of paper ballots to be pre-printed. Counting would also be slower. Or would it?

In this past Barrie election, the speed of vote-counting was an embarrassment. Jurisdictions all around us with paper ballots had reported and gone home while our computerized results trickled in. Candidates went to sleep not knowing if they had been elected; newspapers to press with races too close to call. Even places that had to open mail-in ballot envelopes before sorting and counting were beating us! John Henry won this race and lived to tell of it.

The final insult was this week’s announcement that a trustee result had been reversed upon manual recount. And it wasn’t even a close call – rather, the first- and fourth-place contestants had been switched by computer error!

At this point I wonder if our computer voting system is worth the cost, especially if we have to hand-count them all anyway! Should we return to the tried-and-true pencil on paper?

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.


  1. Good points Erich.
    GIGO. Garbage In, Garbage Out. I learned long ago, when I was in the computer business, that if you computerize a lousy manual system you'll get - you guessed it - a lousy digital one. I remain puzzled at the slowness of the returns in Barrie this past election. Has there been an explanation?

  2. On election night the official word from the Clerk (as reported 2nd-hand on Rogers) was that "there are no glitches, it's just taking the computers a longer time to compile the results". I haven't seen any reports since then about counting speed.

    I can't imagine what the bottleneck was, computers are designed to count at superhuman speeds. Not even any complicated calculations, just simple addition. Now, if it were a matter of a lot of polls reporting late I could understand that, but surely they were all finished voting by 1 hour after polls closed. Add 30 minutes to deliver data to City Hall and the counting should have been done by 10 pm. Was there a lack of connection ports, or some kind of overly-secure encryption or password system?
    It was not this bad in the past, so far as I recall. One of the supposed benefits of computerizing was to be the faster results. FAIL!

    I don't blame the Clerk, she's doing a great job and would have had to work with whatever equipment won the RFP. But we should definitely cross that company off future bid lists and perhaps even get some kind of discount.

    We should also re-evaluate the cost of computerized vs. paper and weigh that against the benefits and risks. I don't know which is cheaper, they have different training and materials profiles. Certainly if we're paying more for touch-screens then it's not money well-spent.

  3. That trustee mix-up was another shock. My guess is that the system had two inconsistent name-sorting algorythms, one that had space before hyphen and the other vice-versa. This is rinky-dink stuff, whoever designed & tested that software should be demoted. If they'd been in charge in 1999 we'd all be Y2K survivalists by now.

    Luckily people's general mistrust of computer voting led to the inclusion of the papar backup and this incident proved why it was needed. So now what about elections that didn't have it?