I heard a lot of whining about technology last night with the New Brunswick election “fiasco” but the only real problems that I can see (other than a delay that made people cranky) were communication ones. It was a beta test but no one described it as such prior to the vote; rather, they touted its ease and speed with few if any cautions about it being untried. On election night as the problems became manifest, communication from Elections New Brunswick was far too slow.
Even when you have no answer it is better to say so but that you’re working on the issue than to be silent.
New Brunswick is small and as a result it’s often a testing ground. A few years ago (2008) when Leonard Cohen was returning to touring after many years and at the unusual age of 74, he began it in New Brunswick. This was because it was small and he wasn’t sure he was up to what he was planning — a world tour. He also wanted to work out the kinks. In other words, it was a beta test.
So here in New Brunswick our election was a beta test of a new, digital voting system. We discovered that it had its problems — the point of a beta test.
Unfortunately, there was not a great deal (if any) talk about this aspect. And there was also little talk about redundant systems, or back-ups. I’d like to hear more about that because from what I heard last night the data was never at risk. It was on memory cards (some of which were AWOL for a while) as well as on a server. So it was accessible if not on one of them than on the other. And then there were the physical ballots that were in the machines – never lost and always available for a manual count in a worst case scenario. The data, then, was available from at least three sources.
This was actually a great election from the technical point of view because it highlighted where problems exist and presumably, now identified, improvements can be made. It sounds as if one problem, at least, was in the over-writing of manual data by the uploaded memory cards. The cards that went “missing” for a while, well that sounds like human error which also should be easily identified and fixed.
Whatever the case, it was a worthwhile exercise because of the fact it highlighted problems – all fixable, I suspect. I’d really like to see some kind of review or report on what issues happened last night and how they can be corrected.
One correction they need to make has to do with processes. When there is a glitch, how long do you wait to go to the backup? When do you initiate a manual count? What and when do you communicate? I think this is one element that may have led to the muddle. I don’t think there was a plan or process to cover this contingency. Put another way, there was a lack of risk management. In my experience, blind faith in technology is always a mistake.
You should always assume problems either from the technology itself or from the way it is being used. If there are no problems, everything’s peachy. If there are, you’re prepared with a plan of action.
During the election coverage I heard a few commentators complaining as they asked the Luddite question, “What was wrong with the old way of manually counting the ballots? Why did we have to change to this mess?”
Well, if those people had been listening to their own coverage they would have heard why. It is increasingly difficult to find reliable people willing to volunteer their time to help run all the polling stations and vote counting.
We may not have liked the delay and it may have been somewhat embarrassing but the use of the tabulation machines in the election was great for every future election because it identified issues, ones that can be addressed and avoided down the road. Other jurisdictions were watching this election and you can be sure that when they go to the machines (as they eventually will) these problems won’t occur because any latent problems have been identified and corrected.
And the next election in New Brunswick that uses the machines – municipal, federal, provincial – will be much quicker and smoother.
(By the way, the machines were used previously in municipal elections with no problems.)