Why Luddism Protects Democracy

Two pieces of technology allow voters to cast their ballots reliably and securely. They are both hundreds of years old and begin with the letter ‘p’

The story goes that during the space race the Americans spent millions of dollars on pens that would work in zero gravity, whilst the Russians gave their astronauts pencils. This is actually an urban legend: both of the rival superpowers started out using pencils before concluding they were a fire hazard and switching to some form of specially designed pen. But true or not the merit that tale has been on my mind because I’ve been mulling the merits of the humble pencil.

The catalyst for this is Jill Stein. Having shown precious little interest in stopping Donald Trump before the election, the Green Party presidential candidate has raised large amounts of money to petition for recounts that aim to show that he did not in fact win a number of swing states. Which if nothing else prompted one of my favourite tweets of the entire election season:

The basis for Stein’s action seems to be the claim by some tech experts and election lawyers that in a number of swing states Clinton performed worse in counties that used electronic voting than those that stuck with physical ballots.

This notion is lent credence by the fact that during the election campaign someone – probably linked to the Russian intelligence services – was carrying out hacks designed to hurt the Clinton campaign. There is no reason to rule out the possibility they would have continued once polling day itself came around.

While all of this is true, it almost certainly doesn’t indicate fraud. When two journalists at FiveThirtyEight,  and , looked at the gap between Clinton’s vote in counties with different voting methods they found that the disparity was likely the result of demographics rather than manipulation. You would expect the counties that used electronic voting to lean Trump anyway as they were whiter and populated by fewer graduates. In addition, the states in question are all in the midwest and Trump seems to have gained ground across that region and not only in states like that still use paper ballots exclusively. In short, there does not appear to be a mystery for which the manipulation of electronic voting systems might be an explanation.

Whilst it may not have happened this time, the use of electronic voting machines leaves American elections vulnerable to fraud. As this video by the tech journalist Tom Scott illustrates, it is practically impossible to secure such machines.

This is not to say that an election conducted with paper ballots can never be fraudulently swayed. Being involved in British politics gave me direct experience of that. During the first election campaign I ever played a decent sized role in, my side spent a lot of time trying to work out if our Labour opponents were casting fraudulent postal votes. We believed – and the police appeared to agree – this had happened in the previous election. But there was no repeat. In the intervening period, a new law had been introduced requiring voters to include a signature and D.O.B on both their application to vote by post and a form that was posted back along with the ballot. This simple step proved sufficient to mostly end abuse of this voting method. And even at its height postal vote fraud in the UK – to my knowledge – only affected local elections. Even under a system lax enough to draw criticism from international democracy watchdogs, getting hold of enough physical ballot papers to influence a parliamentary election without getting caught proved too difficult for potential fraudsters. Imagine, therefore, how difficult it would be to manipulate an election in American states that have a population in the millions.

Once you dispense with physical ballots and record votes only as data, these logistical impediments to fraud fall away. As Scott says:

once you have electronic voting, it can take as much effort to change a million votes as it does one.

But the problem with electronic voting is not only that it makes fraud possible. It also makes it impossible to disprove fraud. You cannot do a recount because there is nothing to recount. The kind of exercise that Bialik and Arthur conducted depends on their being counties and states that don’t use electronic voting in order to compare with the places that do. And even then, the two authors are forced to admit:

It’s possible nonetheless that the election was hacked, in the sense that anything is possible. (And the best hackers are experts in erasing their tracks.) Maybe hackers knew which control variables we’d look at and manipulated the vote in a way that it would look like it was caused by race, education and population driving different voting preferences. Maybe hackers didn’t manipulate the share of votes in individual counties, but rather the turnout, increasing the number of votes in counties likely to favor one candidate or another.

In this context, there is no justification for the use of electronic voting. It may get you results faster but that’s not worth it if the result at the end may have been tampered with. Even if it hasn’t been then the possibility that it might have been is corrosive of trust in the democratic process and a threat to the peaceful transfer of power.

So please Americans go back to paper and pencils. Not only is that more secure but also more reliable. Maintaining a system based around some of the most common items in the world is easy compared to maintaining machines. If a pencil breaks, you do not need an engineer to fix it. If you run out of them, then someone with no training on their first day at work is quite capable of going to Staples and buying some replacements. And because pencils and paper cost next to nothing they can be replaced as and when needed. By contrast, buying new machines is expensive so many electoral authorities put it off. Do this long enough and you wind up in the situation of Pennsylvania which on November 8th 2016 was still using touch screens:

….from the ’80s made by…companies that don’t exist anymore.

That led to fears that even if the machines weren’t hacked they might simply make errors that resulted in them recording votes incorrectly.

In addition, there’s no need to teach voters how to use pencil and paper, hence there is less chance of ‘a hanging chad‘ style fiasco.

A number of states have wound up with the weird compromise of having voters cast their ballots using machines that then produce a paper copy of the ballot. Which – to borrow a phrase from Scott – makes the voting machine into nothing more than “the world’s most expensive pencil”.

If they wish to speed up the counting process, election authorities could always bring in machines to count ballots. This is less problematic than using them to record results because there remains a physical ballot paper that can be recounted by hand if there’s a question about the machine’s accuracy.

That exception aside Luddism is the best option when it comes to election. The ubiquity of pencils and paper speaks to their versatility. There is no need to invent any special technology to enable people to vote: a perfectly good tool for the job has been around for at least 500 years.

 

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I’ve written before about why I think the dangers of voter impersonation are dramatically overstated both in the US and the UK.

Can a non-Potter fan like me enjoy Fantastic Beasts?

I was a nerdy British nine year old when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published. I, therefore, really ought to have been a big fan of the series. All my friends were (and mostly still are). Yet for some reason I never got into them.  I did eventually read the Philosopher’s Stone in a rush before seeing the film. I thought both were alright but neither gripped me enough to induce me to spend further time reading or watching them. Perhaps my love for Star Trek and Star Wars was too all consuming for me to have room for another franchise in my heart.

So I came to Fantastic Beasts if not cold then at least rather chilled. I could probably have named most of the central characters but I had essentially no awareness of the wider history of the magical universe that books two through seven presumably sketch out. Which is significant because this new installment is a prequel and takes place within that backstory.

There were times when I felt that meant I wasn’t getting as much from Fantastic Beasts as I could. Various moments – including the big and rather obvious reveal at the end – lacked the impact they might have had. The same went for Easter Eggs – particularly taking the opportunity to name characters – which may excite fans but for me just broke the flow. Perhaps most significantly, I wasn’t familiar with the tone and it took me twenty minutes or so to click into it.

Despite that the tone was probably the thing I liked most about it. It alternates rather a lot. On the one hand, there is the story the title implies: the whimsical tale of heroes rounding up magical creatures. On the other, there are the elements of the film centring on the villains. These are not only dark but remarkably so. They contain allusions to terrorism, segregation, the Red Scare, the rise of fascism and child abuse.  There has been some criticism that the film doesn’t really gel these two halves and therefore winds up suffering from ‘tonal whiplash’. That’s true but unfair. The bleaker scenes have all the more impact for being placed amongst generally lighter moments. A genuinely creepy execution scene particularly stands out.

I also liked how a more British sensibility was preserved despite the setting being transferred to New York. It was not only the presence of a magical item that’s smaller on the inside than the outside that made me think of Dr Who!

If I have a gripe it’s that the CGI looks, well, very CGI. The visuals are not without their merits: 1920s New York is wonderfully evoked. However, when magic is supposedly bending reality it is a bit too obvious that a computer is really doing it. This problem is highlighted by the fact that Fantastic Beasts comes out soon after Doctor Strange. Marvel’s latest offering realised its magical world with great panache and was genuinely awe inspiring. When you’ve seen it showing people rebuilding structures with magic, the same thing happening in Fantastic Beasts seems rather humdrum.

But that is to quibble. Fantastic Beasts may not be essential viewing for non-Potter fans but we can still enjoy it. The film makes liberal use of the Potterverses mythology but does not assume your familiarity with it. Besides reminders of previous instalments, Fantastic Beasts also delivers plenty of warmth, humour alongside some nicely nasty creepiness. I will definitely be looking out for the sequel.

 

The best podcasts I’ve heard recently (26/11/2016)

 

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The week’s most interesting development in podcast land has been the arrival of Undone. The conceit is revisiting news stories and controversies of yesteryear to see how they developed once they stopped being the focus of media attention.

Which is interesting but the real selling point are the production values. It comes from Gimlet Media who specialise in doing what they call “high quality narrative podcasts”. Which is advertising speak for ‘our podcasts sound like something that could have been broadcast by the BBC or PBS.’ Don’t get me wrong: I like the fact that many podcasts aren’t like that. The ‘stick some smart and articulate people in a room with a microphone for an hour and lightly edit it’ format has lowered the medium’s barrier to entry substantially, and allowed listeners to eavesdrop on some fascinating conversations. However, given the way that the media as a whole appears to be drifting away from reporting towards opinion, I like hearing journalists doing the opposite: going out and interviewing the people involved in a story and giving precedence to those voices rather their own.

I’ve heard two episodes so far. The first on the battle that broke out between academia and Native Americans, when the oldest skeleton ever discovered in North America appeared to have ‘Caucasoid’ features. The other was on the Deacons for a Defence and Justice, a group pursuing civil rights in Louisiana that rejected Martin Luther King’s insistence on non-violence yet stayed within the movement he created and indeed was called upon by him for assistance.

Moving from PBS-like shows to PBS itself, “>Planet Money had a strange yet entertaining episode that felt like two episodes mushed together.  It nominal subject was the awarding of this year’s nobel prize for economics. But as it was awarded for a rather technical development in contract theory, the presenters themselves admit they are struggling to find a hook. So they wind up blending that with an interview with More or Less‘s Tim Harford about his new book on how forcing yourself to deal with unpredictable situations can foster creativity. In this case, that means the Planet Money team using a pack of cards devised by Brian Eno to help bands try new things to force themselves to create a new episode idea. It’s at once mad but brilliant.

Also on economic theory but seemingly a long way from Planet Money, the Vietnamese themed Loa reports on Marxist-Leninist education in the country. All university students are apparently required to take modules in the subject even if they intend to major in quintessentially capitalist fields like banking.

Right that’s it for my inaugural round up of the week’s best podcasting. If you hear anything that you think should be included in future editions, please do let me know.