PFIR - People For Internet Responsibility
The Coming Electoral Blackout?

January 20, 2001

See also: "PFIR Statement on Internet Voting" (26 Feb 2000)

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Greetings. More than 20 years ago, a documentary television series called "Connections" (starring James Burke in a now very-dated leisure suit) explored the premise that there are complex interrelationships between seemingly unrelated events that affect our common histories.

As we enter the (actual!) start of the 21st Century, this concept seems especially valid, with potential impacts that could shake our democracies to their very cores.

Of particular note at this particular moment are two extraordinary events. The first is the electrical power crisis affecting one of the world's largest economies, the State of California. The other is a power crisis of a different sort -- concerns that election technology shortcomings, combined with political and court chicanery on a grand scale, may have placed the rightful loser of a presidential election into the Presidency of the United States.

California's power problems will be worked out eventually, one way or another. The state itself, the nation, and the world dare not permit California's economy to falter, for fear of serious consequences around the globe. On the political front, third-party recounts of the disputed ballots in Florida may ultimately tell us whether the new President, who certainly lost the popular vote, also in reality lost the electoral college vote as well.

But regardless of how these two different power questions are ultimately resolved, there is a common thread relating to both -- the tendency for many persons with laudable goals to try solving perceived problems by "legislating" technology -- often with disastrous results.

California's power problems were triggered by a "deregulation" program unanimously passed by state legislators, with strong backing from then-Governor Wilson, in an effort to lower high consumer energy costs. There were clues from the outset that there was something fishy about the plan. Commercials urged consumers to "choose" their power supplier ("get 'green' power from us!") much as they'd select a long-distance telephone carrier. This was technological nonsense -- the power grids don't permit most ordinary consumers to actually be fed electricity from different sources on an individualized basis.

Ultimately, for a variety of reasons, the entire plan exploded in an enormous backfire, threatening the solvency of gigantic power firms and risking economic chaos. Only a few municipally-controlled power systems in California who chose not to deregulate, such as the one in Los Angeles, have been spared the threat of rolling blackouts and sharply higher rates.

All of this seems pretty obvious by hindsight. But the key point is that at the time these plans were implemented, there were many reasonably intelligent people who thought that they were doing the right thing, for the right reasons, by legislating what was basically a technology issue.

Now, in the wake of the Election 2000 debacle, we stand on the cusp of another technology-based controversy, with even greater potential for a disastrous outcome. The sudden publicity surrounding the shortcomings of punched-card voting systems (flaws which have long been known in the election-technology community, but just generally ignored) are resulting in fevered calls for a rapid transition to "modern" electronic voting systems. Mechanical and/or paper-oriented systems would be replaced by computer-based systems, with an eye towards ultimately allowing voters to exercise their franchise from the comfort of their homes via the Internet.

The grandiose arguments in favor of such a transition, even though flying in the face of technological realities, can seem enticing both to many technologists and to the broader public. Some detailed discussions of the issues (which will not be repeated here) can be viewed at:

The push for electronic and/or Internet voting comes from a number of quarters. The most obvious is the designers and vendors of such voting systems, who predictably accentuate the glitz of the concepts, but downplay the many fundamental risks that their products would inevitably create.

Another segment of the population expressing interest in such systems is comprised of persons we might refer to as "technological revolutionaries." These are folks who view technology as a means to undermine (a more charitable term might be "alter") basic aspects of society. Often-promoted concepts from these enthusiasts include ideas like "instantaneous direct democracy" (using technology for instantaneous issue votes, without the moderating influence of legislative representation) and similar major alterations in national political and social structures.

Of course, another interested (and extremely important) group in the election systems saga is formed by our own legislators at various levels of government. As we have seen, while diligently searching for politically-acceptable solutions to perceived technological problems, they are at high risk for creating situations far worse than the original problems themselves.

Of particular note is the fact that, by and large, the members of all three of these groups are persons of good motives. Most of them genuinely wish to improve people's lives and quickly "fix" those aspects of society that they perceive to be broken. But there's an old saying that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." Likewise, the path to serious technology meltdowns is often marked with enticing billboards, imploring us to immediately abandon the past, and to broadly embrace a range of promised new wonders, without a true understanding of the flaws and surprises that lurk therein.

To be concerned about these potential technological traps is not to be an obstructionist or a Luddite. Rather, it's the basic responsibility of concerned citizens, who are willing to consider those proposals that are reasonable, but unwilling to buy into new technologies as if they were snake-oil remedies being hawked from the rear of an old-time peddler's medicine wagon.

In 1996, California willingly jumped into a glimmering, deregulatory power promise that turned out to be a quicksand bog of electrical muck. Now, in 2001, individual counties and states around the U.S. seem poised to jump into virtual, high-tech electronic voting booths, that quite likely conceal bottomless pits beneath their paper-thin flooring. To take such a plunge without a complete, honest, and comprehensive discussion of the many intractable problems and risks associated with such products, especially when less sophisticated voting systems (such as optical scanners) can provide many desirable improvements without most of the risks, would be exceptionally foolhardy.

If we insist on taking this route, even in the face of the myriad examples of related electronic and computer system problems and failures which should serve as clear warnings, we'll indeed get exactly what we deserve. We'll have nobody but ourselves to blame, when we find ourselves staring into the darkness of future hi-tech elections gone bad.

--Lauren--
Lauren Weinstein
lauren@vortex.com or lauren@privacyforum.org
Co-Founder, PFIR - People For Internet Responsibility - http://www.pfir.org
Moderator, PRIVACY Forum - http://www.vortex.com
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy