This technologist is still skeptical of online voting—for human reasons

I’ve been skeptical of electronic/digital/online voting for a while. It has its strong supporters (using blockchain or other technology — from the public’s perspective, the technology is basically irrelevant). As a technologist that consults on helping people use collaboration software on Microsoft and Google’s clouds, anything that makes a process easier, more inclusive, and more immediate is always good.

Personally, I always think making it easier to vote is a good thing. Either you think everyone should vote and you should empower them to or you think only your select group should by not providing the resources to others to vote (the latter of which is undemocratic). So, why not be able to vote on your phone? Or your computer? Like how you fill out your census?

Well, there are some really smart, technical people I know and respect that say “hold on a minute” and that alone gives me pause. When you ask them their concerns, it usually boils down to centralized data that can be hacked, affected, tweaked (choose your word, they mean the same thing on different scales) from afar, whether it’s yards away (locally) or thousands of miles (e.g., Russia, China).

The de-centralized, generally paper-based voting system the US has is old-school, but damn is it hard to foil. It takes only dozens of people on the other side of the world to screw with a fully online election, but would require thousands — maybe even tens of thousands — of crooked people on the ground here in the US to affect a non-electronic election. Federalism and paper ballots have their upsides, it turns out.

(Note: scanning paper ballots does not count as “electronic”. The data is kept and shared locally by precinct via local thumb drive or other device and it would still take some serious effort to infect thousands of source scanning machines nationwide. I’m talking about internet-connected machines that work like a self-checkout at a CVS or Walmart.)

But did you see Rudy’s press conference today? One of the speakers was Sidney Powell, a former US attorney that now serves as one of Trump’s attorneys on the election, essentially erased my concerns. Why? Because right-wing spectacles like we saw today show the potential of not actual voter fraud — there appears to be the typical one-off dead person who voted illegally like normal or legitimate typo by a county clerk here and there, but nothing systemic or even beyond single digits-impact in many states — but the perception of voter fraud among an uninformed populace that is the problem.

Saying of current electronic votings systems (not currently available in my home state of New York, by the way), “One of its most characteristic features is its ability to flip votes. It can set and run an algorithm that probably ran all over the country to take a certain percentage of votes from [candidate X] and flip them to [candidate Y],” is inflammatory to say the least. (Stated by Powell.)

To be clear, Powell and Co. have no proof, no evidence, for this claim. Feel free to research the real interent for yourself (avoid 4-chan and Q-anon forums, please). Even Tucker Carlson covered it tonight saying “We tried getting evidence from them. This would be the single most impactful crime in US history. But they got angry when we kept asking for proof.” (This is my paraphrasing.)

I know: I, too, now have to assume Tucker’s been sucked into the Deep State.™

The point is, a lot in life—something you learn very obviously when working in technology and technology adoption—isn’t so much about whether the system works, but whether someone nefarious can convince everyone else it doesn’t. (That does happen.)

If I learned anything while serving on the school board for seven years, it’s that perception is always more important and impactful than reality. Individuals will take a one-off, minor issue—even something made up!—and run with it as if it’s a not a paper cut but an incision threatening overall live.

Even a perfect system can be deemed useless if the public has no faith in it. (Though, fun fact: there is no such thing as a perfect system.) It seems it’ll take a lot to get true electronic voting to be trusted enough by all sides of the aisle. Let alone the current system we have.

Electronic voting right now? Nope. The leaders of the right can’t be trusted not to abuse the lack of technical knowledge of the public — read: their base, mostly — to push wild and untrue claims for their political benefit.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

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Microsoft MVP • Office 365 & Microsoft Teams specialist • NY→USVI→DC→NY

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Matt Wade

Matt Wade

Microsoft MVP • Office 365 & Microsoft Teams specialist • NY→USVI→DC→NY

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