In 2004, Behavior worked on a web site for the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s special exhibition Vote: The Machinery of Democracy. The exhibition focused on America’s “voting patchwork”, the broad range of voting technologies used state by state, county by county. It was an enlightening experience working on the project, and I encourage you to visit the site to learn about how we got to where we are now.
The current range of voting technologies in use today includes:
- Paper Ballots
- Gear-and-Lever Voting Machines
- Punch Cards
- Optical Scan Ballots and Readers
- Direct-Recording Electronic Ballots
It’s widely assumed that the most modern technology available is obviously the best option — that is, that we should be using touch-screen direct-recording electronic voting machines. But maybe this isn’t the case — counterintuitively, perhaps an older technology is the best approach.
Here in New York State, we use the gear-and-lever voting machine, an error-prone 1940s technology that is still is wide use throughout the northeast, where close elections are rare. In 2000, many counties in other parts of the USA were still using punch cards, a technology that was cutting edge in the 1950s but which, no doubt due to the Florida debacle, has been almost completely retired by now. Much of the nation still uses “optical scan” technology — the old #2-pencil fill-in-the-bubbles we all know from standardized tests going back to the 1960’s. In fact, this technology has been in wide use for standardized testing for almost three generations of schoolchildren, and has been used for voting for almost 30 years.
A colleague at Behavior, David Wu, told me the other day — without hesitation, and with definitive certainty — that he thought that the optical scan method was obviously the best choice, precisely because of the familiarity we all have from childhoods filled with standardized tests. The gears in my head started turning, and I was convinced instantly, especially when I thought of it in terms of the lifecycle of technologies.
I asked myself this: Of all the technologies currently in use (besides hand-written paper ballots, which are quaint but hard to count), which of them has had the longest history of practical use by real people? Or, to put it more simply, which technology is the least likely to quickly become obsolete, dated, and goofy?
For many Americans, going to the voting booth has always been like taking a trip one generation back in time. When the gear-and-lever machines were widely adopted in the 1960s, punch cards had already moved up to become the most high-tech means of electronic data storage and retreival in the real world of our offices and institutions. And then when punch cards were introduced in the voting world, most people in the real world had already moved on to optical-scan data collection, and even to direct-recording devices like ATMs and keyboard-and-monitor based computer terminals.
Optical-scan technology, however, defies this cycle. Even as newer technologies have come along — electronic voting machines with buttons, keyboard, mice, and touch screens — our schools continue to count on optical-scan technology to test our children, and the technology works just fine and without significant change in over 50 years of constant use. Everyone knows how to use it, it has a satisfying and trustworthy feel of direct access to the ballot via pencil-and-paper, a paper document/artifact is left behind, and the counting technology is pretty accurate and fast.
What’s more, no sophisticated software is required, no mysterious secret and proprietary algorithms or storage devices are used, no easily-hacked or insecure software, no buggy operating systems or unfamiliar UI paradigms (remember that millions of Americans have never used an ATM or a personal computer), and with all that, less distrust among voters that their vote will actually count.
Isn’t this obvious? Why on earth would we anybody consider using anything else?