Remote Voting Technology Workshop Wanders the Edge of an Intellectual Food Fight
[Note: This is a personal opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Foundation or TrustTheVote Project.]
I should have seen this coming. What was I thinking or expecting?
I am reporting this evening from the NIST Workshop on UOCAVA Remote Voting Systems here in Washington D.C.. After a great set of meetings earlier today on other activities of the Foundation (which we’ll have more to say about soon, but had nothing to do with our contributions to the District’s UOCAVA voting Pilot) I arrived at the Wardman Park Marriott near the Naval Observatory (home of the Vice President) for the Workshop, having unfortunately missed the morning sessions. I barely made it into the lobby, when I had my first taste of what was being served.
My first exposure to the workshop (by then on lunch break) was witnessing a somewhat heated discussion between members of the Verified Voting Foundation and Rokey Suleman, Director of Elections for the District of Columbia. Apparently, a speaker (identity is irrelevant) of noted authority had delivered a talk before lunch in which he spoke rather condescendingly toward elections officials (likening them to “drunk drivers”).
Mr. Suleman was explaining that so far the meeting appeared to be a waste of his time (principally because of such ad hominen remarks). Those of the Verified Voting Foundation seemed unwilling to acknowledge that this speaker had (how ever unintentionally) denigrated the hard work of elections officials (as several others later relayed to me they too perceived), emphasizing instead that this individual was, “The nicest person who would never intend such a thing.”
Diplomacy 101 teaches: Perception equals reality.
Rather, they seemed to cling to the fact that this speaker was so much of an authority (which strictly speaking this person who made the drunken driving reference, is in fact a technical authority), that this comment should be overlooked.
The argument devolved from there; the substance of which is irrelevant. What is relevant, however, is that in the very next session after lunch, another argument broke out over legal details of the letter of the UOCAVA law(s) and the related promulgated regulations enacting new aspects of overseas voting that enable (among other things) the digital delivery of blank ballots, and – arguably – the opportunity to pilot a means of digital return.
By the way: have I mentioned this workshop is supposed to be about UOCAVA remote voting which is limited to a qualified subset of that population overseas, and not the unrestricted widespread so-called “Internet voting?” But yet, an uninformed onlooker could reasonably believe that the battle lines were being drawn over the general widespread notion of Internet Voting on the basis of the so-called “slippery slope” argument. (Note: I’ll leave it to trained Philosophers to explain why that argument actually is illogical in its own right in most applications.) So, take a look at the Workshop description and draw your own conclusions.
The issue seems to be overly-trained on possibilities/potential of compromise and nowhere near a discussion of probability. What’s more, I’m so far hearing nothing of the discussions about the technical challenges we need to address and how if at all (only an official from the Okaloosa Distance Balloting Pilot attempted to offer any such presentation or agenda).
Instead, I kept hearing the rhetoric of avoidance – both in and outside of sessions. But the Internet has darkened the doorstep of nearly every aspect of society today. Why does it feel like we’re fooling ourselves into believing that somehow this cloud won’t also darken the doorstep of elections in a digital age? Unfortunately, it already is; and future generations may well demand it. However, that’s a discussion for another venue — we’re supposed to be exploring remote voting solutions for qualified overseas voters.
Let me say once again:
The Foundation and TrustTheVote Project do NOT support the widespread use of the Internet for the transaction of voting data.
That restated, as far as the Internet playing any role in elections is concerned, it seems to me that we need to look carefully at how to address this challenge, scourge, or whatever we want to call it, rather than try to abolish or avoid it. Had this mentality been applied to sending man to the moon, this nation never would have achieved four successful lunar landings out of five attempts.
But again, arguing over what role the Internet should or should not play in elections is not why I am here. Intellectually honest discourse on the challenges and opportunities of UOCAVA remote voting solutions is why I am attending. And I hoped I would witness (and participate in) a healthy discussion of the technical challenges beyond encryption debates and ideas on how to address them.
So far, I have not.
Instead, what I have is a seat in an intellectual food fight. Notwithstanding a few interesting comments, speakers, and hallway chats, this sadly so far is a near waste of time (and money). As one election official put it to me at this evening’s no-host reception:
Today reminds me of an observation by Nick Bostrom, an Oxford Philosopher: there is absolute certainty that the universe we live in is artificial. Because that’s the only logical conclusion you can reach when you exclusively calculate possibilities without any consideration of probabilities.
Thankfully, we (at the Foundation) have much to work on regarding the use of computers in real world elections that has nothing to do with the transport layer. Outside of these workshops, we don’t intend to address Internet solutions in our work in any significant manner.
And thankfully more, we had some very positive meetings this morning that validated the potential of our work to actually deliver publicly owned critical democracy infrastructure for accurate, transparent, trustworthy, and secure elections.
Tomorrow is another day; we’ll see what happens, and I’ll report back.