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INTELLIGENT SYSTEMS

 

Volume VII, Number 4     December, 2000

 

A quarterly newsletter for clients and friends of Chenault Systems.


Chenault Systems Celebrates Five Year Anniversary

Chenault Systems, Incorporated in December of 1995, has now been in existence for 5 years.  During this period, Chenault Systems has served 46 clients and has added 5 new clients this year.  The company has grown by 35% since this time last year.  Plans for 2001 include:

Voting Systems

By Tom Chenault

There is an old favorite saying among efficiency consultants: “Instead of spending time and money fighting alligators, drain the swamp.”  While the state of Florida may have a majority of swamps and alligators, they are not in the minority in terms of inefficient voting systems regarding the recent presidential election.  Many of the states had problems; however, the Florida election was a systems consultant’s worst nightmare.  Punch cards are a technology that belongs to the 50’s and 60’s, not the 21st century.  In Denton County, Texas, we had optical scanner systems where the voter simply connected two lines with a special felt tip pen.  The intent of the voter is easy to recognize.  The instructions were simple: It’s not a vote unless the lines are connected.  Anybody who has ever played with crayons could do it.  In addition, this approach lends itself to recounting with an optical scanner or by hand.  Texas also has standards for recounting ballots by hand, whereas Florida does not.

The Florida decision to count the cards by hand, regardless of the legal implications, was a very bad systems decision.  Counting the cards by machine is the only accurate way to get a consistent count, which is why there is a Florida statute that supports it.  Counting the cards by hand, without any pre-set standards, leads to faulty, inconsistent counts due to human mistakes and political mischief.  The worst part of card technology is the idiotic paper chads -- hanging chads, dimpled chads, swinging chads, etc., -- which led to a complete embarrassment to the Florida election process.  The Florida Supreme Court created more mayhem by not recognizing the November 14th. 5:00 PM return deadline (the law) and then, not setting any recount standards.  No one drained the swamp to end the enormous overhead cost of alligators (election workers, lawyers, media, demonstrators, and administration).  Interestingly, if the correct technology had been used for voting in Florida, the legal and political problems could have been avoided.

What is a better technology?  Almost anything is better than chaotic punch cards.  We must also keep in mind the objective of voting systems, which is to provide a fair and accurate count accomplished in a timely manner.  If the election is very close, as in the Florida case, then any recounts must be done quickly before the politicians and media can spoil it for the rest of us.

What about the Internet?  This could be the ideal system for elections.  People would vote on on-line computers from local schools, churches, fire stations, etc.  Allowing voting from home would not be advisable because there needs to be some kind of administrative controls to supplement the on-line controls.  Software would be easier to use, providing an environment for simple data entry, data validation, and ballot submittal.  On-line help could be provided – no more “I don’t understand the butterfly ballot” excuse. Furthermore, a nationwide consistent look and feel could be established.  The voting form could be large, easy to read, as there is no limit the display space – multiple screens could be employed.  After the voter is finished, a paper report is printed with two copies, as a paper trail is still necessary.  One copy goes home with the voter and a signed copy stays with the local election officials as a paper backup.  At the end of the Election Day, the hard copy report totals must agree with the on-line screen totals.

Election night would be fascinating with totals accurate to the second, minimizing the confusion which always seems to be present with media projections.  In other words, the public could be watching the real returns from their computers over the Internet rather than watching polling projections on television.  All the county computers would be linked together all over the country.  A sophisticated, consolidated national database would keep track of all the votes by state for the Electoral College or national totals for the popular vote.  There could also be county and state databases.

From a pure technological point of view, the security of the Internet far exceeds anything we have with election equipment now, which is supported by the debacle we had in Florida.  All kinds of user name and password protection, along with both hardware and software firewalls would be deployed.

Interestingly, if the correct technology had been used for voting in Florida, the legal and political problems could  have been avoided.

Fewer election workers and officials would be needed, a return on investment likely superseded only by the accuracy of the count.  Less people involved is better because people, not computers, commit fraud and voter fraud is the biggest problem in elections.

Conversely, from a political point of view, Internet voting may have a tough time getting approved.  Politicians do not like business-like black and white solutions.  They can’t control them.  The general public would not trust it at first.  Then again, like everything else, they would embrace it over time.  For example, there was a strong reluctance among teachers to use e-mail.  Now, you can’t take it away from them.  Someday the Internet and databases will become the voting engine of The United States.  It’s just a matter of time.  The election of 2000 is the beginning of this quest for a technological solution instead of more cumbersome political one.

The Full Circle of Technology

With enough time, history always repeats itself and the computer industry is no exception.  In the mid 1970’s, we had the beginning of a departure from the mainframe computer world to a technology called “computer timesharing.”  Timesharing was the sharing of computer resources from remote locations using a terminal connected via the phone lines and first form of personal computing.  It was expensive, though not nearly so as buying one’s own mainframe, so it was hardly for individuals.  Industry and government agencies typically took advantage of timesharing technology, which was much easier to use than the mainframe technology.

In the mid 1980’s, relatively low cost personal computers, along with local area networks, made the concept of timesharing temporarily obsolete and, for the most part, finished off the mainframe as a dominant culture.  In the mid 1990’s, the Internet brought back the concept of timesharing to the masses at a low cost with high bandwidth speed.  The general public became enamored with it over night. 

Twenty-five years ago, only a few knew about timesharing, which was the beginning of the Internet.  Today, millions of people are now using computer and telecommunications technology to streamline operations and process information.

Quotes Worth Noting

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government.  It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasure.  From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most money from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship.  The average age of the world's great civilizations has been two hundred years.  These nations have progressed through the following sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependency, from dependency back to bondage.” -- Alexander Tyler, Scottish Professor, 1787

“We’re going through a big change…. because of the Internet.  In a way, it’s like saying good-bye to pop culture as we know it.” --  Madonna

“In the United States the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own.” -- Alexis de Tocqueville 

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