Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

We keep chickens in Ghana, a very small scale commercial farm with both broilers and layers. So the health of the flock, and the consequent health of the people who work regularly with the chickens, and ourselves, is an ongoing concern. We keep the chickens screened in, and are careful about footwear, gloves and other prophylactic precautions. But bird flu is an ongoing source of concern and I watch the news for any new developments. Recent research in Vietnam indicates why bird flu is so deadly in humans, so much more than the usual strains of flu.

From Discovery Reports:

Tests showed that H5N1 puts higher loads of virus into victims’ throats, as opposed to their nose – like a human flu would do. The virus also replicates to much higher levels than a common flu. A victim’s immune system responds by an intense inflammatory response, say the researchers. This response, combined with the effects of the virus, is the real killer.
. . .
The findings suggest antiviral drugs are an effective way to treat patients with bird flu, says the study.

Maryland has been having a primary election today and all is not well with the voting machines.

For some excellent perspective on the problems with voting machines see this article. At heart the problem Cringely describes is that the election officials are not running the elections. The vendors of the voting hardware and software are running the elections.

Why the best voting technology may be no technology at all from Robert Cringely.

The rationale for not giving each voter a receipt that shows how he or she voted and can be used for later verification has always been that this would enable vote selling. If you could prove with an official receipt that you voted for Mr. Big, then it would be practical for Mr. Big to buy your vote, becoming Mayor Big. So receipts are bad, or at least, they can be bad. But that doesn’t mean that auditing an election is bad, though many people — some of them election officials — make that illogical jump.
. . .
Still, auditing in some form would be a good idea now because we seem to be entering a period when electronic elections can be subject to voter fraud on a massive scale. Rather than buying votes one at a time, the bogeyman is stealing votes en masse. Or even worse, it could be stealing votes on a very intelligent basis to just shade an election in a way that would go undetected. As President Kennedy once joked, his wealthy father might be willing to buy him an election, but he wouldn’t buy a landslide.
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Software for these machines tends to be proprietary and hidden even from the officials who are supposed to “certify” that the code is accepted. This certification is a joke in that bug patches are routinely distributed after certification — patches that ought to be re-certified, but aren’t. Even worse, some of the software is considered to be off-the-shelf and not subject to certification. This applies to Windows CE, which is used in many new voting machines. But Windows CE isn’t really an off-the-shelf product. Microsoft distributes it in the form of source code that is compiled for each target hardware device. So here is software that can be supremely compromised, yet the certification officials never even take a look at it.

And there’s the big problem — the people running the elections aren’t actually running them. Vendors are doing that. Election officials don’t know how their equipment works and won’t know if it works wrong.

This is lunacy.

And it is also patronage. There is a lot of money in replacing all those machines, and that money is going primarily to the usual suspects. Remember that every public crisis in America is an opportunity for someone to make money.
. . .
First, the area where technology might be useful but isn’t being used much, as far as I can tell, is voter validation. This could be a pretty straightforward database application that simply ensures that people are who they say they are, and they only get to vote once. The Help America Vote Act and its $3.9 billion don’t touch this problem. If I were even more of a cynic than I am, I might suggest that’s because it is often easier to disenfranchise specific blocks of voters by losing or corrupting their registration data than any other way.

As for voting itself, I think we have made a horrible decision to solve this problem with technology. While the voting technology we have been considering is flawed, the best answer doesn’t have to be some other voting technology that is somehow better. We turn to technology because it supposedly eliminates human error. I suggest that we add humans to the process in order to eliminate technological errors. And we’d save a lot of money in the process.

My model for smart voting is Canada. The Canadians are watching our election problems and laughing their butts off. They think we are crazy, and they are right.

Forget touch screens and electronic voting. In Canadian Federal elections, two barely-paid representatives of each party, known as “scrutineers,” are present all day at the voting place. If there are more political parties, there are more scrutineers. To vote, you write an “X” with a pencil in a one centimeter circle beside the candidate’s name, fold the ballot up and stuff it into a box. Later, the scrutineers AND ANY VOTER WHO WANTS TO WATCH all sit at a table for about half an hour and count every ballot, keeping a tally for each candidate. If the counts agree at the end of the process, the results are phoned-in and everyone goes home. If they don’t, you do it again. Fairness is achieved by balanced self-interest, not by technology. The population of Canada is about the same as California, so the elections are of comparable scale. In the last Canadian Federal election the entire vote was counted in four hours. Why does it take us 30 days or more?
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No voting system is perfect. Elections have been stolen and voters disenfranchised with paper ballots, too. But our approach of throwing technology at a problem with a result that election reliability is not improved, that it may well be compromised in new and even scarier ways, and that this all costs billions that could be put to better use makes no sense at all.