Saturday, July 15th, 2006

Daily Archive

Have you had a machine curse at you lately? I’m sure a few people remember reports of malfunctioning Tickle Me Elmos who some parents claimed were corrupting their children, and there’s also the Smurf toy who apparently says, “I like it when you cut me,” but these are probably nothing more than really, really funny figments of Middle American breeders’ imaginations. After all, major toymakers undoubtedly spend millions on testing and quality control to make sure their fun products are wholesome and safe… well, mostly safe.

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But, I digress. This is not about kids’ toys, but rather the adult playthings of democracy: voting machines. I work in the Department of Elections of a major American city – let’s call it Fran Sancisco – and recently have been put to work testing our new voting machines. To conform to federal standards, the Department is placing an accessible voting machine at every polling place for the upcoming June 6 primaries.

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“Accessible” in this case means the machines are made for use by voters with disabilities, i.e., mobility problems or impaired vision – voters who would otherwise have trouble marking a ballot by hand. You can see one here, but the thing is basically an oversized O.G. Nintendo without the fun of Duck Hunt or Hudson’s Adventure Island. However, unlike the beloved Japanese video game system of the 80’s, our new voting machines come up with non sequiturs worthy of David Duke at a NAACP benefit dinner – sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.

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The machine works like this: you (the disabled voter) – or a friendly and helpful poll worker

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– feed your party-specific paper ballot into a slot in the front, and the thing then processes the info on this sheet. Upon reading the ballot (supposing it doesn’t freak out, jam, or reject it, as it often does) the machine produces a touch-screen read-out of the contents of the ballot, first with an instruction screen, then the consecutive contests, one-by-one. Imagine an ATM where you choose “Nancy Pelosi” instead of “$40 Quick Cash from Checking.”

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Other than the touch-screen function, the machine also has an interface for various devices used by the disabled, like a “sip puff,” and an audio script for the blind. In our recent days of testing, it has been the computer-voiced script that has provided the most entertainment, shock, and awe.

Fran Sancisco, as some may know, is located in the great state of California. Our governor is pretty well-known; the man is a (correctly pronounced) household name in American places where they can’t say “tortilla” right. I would imagine this includes Omaha, Nebraska, home of the company that provides our voting machines. I was the first of our small staff to proof a Republican ballot for the upcoming election and found otherwise.

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The damn thing said the n-word at me. And my coworkers. And boss. Even the Director of Elections. In a tinny little vocoder staccato:

“Ar-nold Sch-war-zuh- n*****”

I thought I was completely desensitized to the word (and most other things) by now, but hearing it in that dinky See n’ Say voice was pretty startling. Imagine how a blind voter would react. Imagine how a blind black voter would react.

Voting machines are controversial because people are afraid of them being tampered with. Although these machines keep a paper trail on a visible little receipt-sized roll, I believe voter fraud is plausible. It’s happened before, and not so far from this fair city. But what I’m worried about now is sheer incompetence.

The one racial slur in the audio script isn’t the sole problem with these machines. They are also supposed to

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function in Chinese and Spanish, as Fran San has sizeable numbers of Cantonese and Latino voters. However, the Chinese is sprayed across the screen like confetti, and the Spanish audio comes out so slow and slurred we’ve name the voice “Juan Borracho.” When navigating this mess, the picture that emerges is a system whose vendors did zilch to check for operability. There was simply no quality control.

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As far as I can figure, the argument for privatizing government functions, like providing electricity or elections, is that market competition improves quality and discourages fiscal waste. The city has spent millions on a contract for hundreds of voting machines that, in their current state, will (maybe) offend blind Republicans, and disenfranchise any disabled voters dependent on second language. In outsourcing elections into the private sector, it seems to have created even less accountability.

So, to all cialis for sale \ buy viagra online \ mexican pharmacy \ online pharmacy \ generic viagra online \ cialis dosage those conspiracy theorists out there: have no fear of highly organized corporate cabals handing their rich benefactors elected office. Not in this town, anyway. Instead worry about the omnipresent modern menace of the half-assed job.

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An article in the New Yorker about relative poverty ran recently. I'm posting the first paragraph here:

In the summer of 1963, Mollie Orshansky, a forty-eight-year-old statistician at the Social Security Administration, in Washington, D.C., published an article in the Social Security Bulletin entitled “Children of the Poor.” “The wonders of science and technology applied to a generous endowment of natural resources have wrought a way of life our grandfathers never knew,” she wrote. “Creature comforts once the hallmark of luxury have descended to the realm of the commonplace, and the marvels of modern industry find their way into the home of the American worker as well as that of his boss. Yet there is an underlying disquietude reflected in our current social literature, an uncomfortable realization that an expanding economy has not brought gains to all in equal measure. It is reflected in the preoccupation with counting the poor—do they number 30 million, 40 million, or 50 million?”

The article goes on to discuss how poverty lines are drawn and how wealth is relative to your culture of reference. What

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it doesn't explore is something that has to do with Mr. Seibel's previous post. Computers and internet access are the new TVs and dishwashers, they will soon be in even the most poverty stricken areas. Out of date computers have become a waste management problem and it's only a matter of time before free wireless internet and trashed, wireless-capable PCs intersect to bring any inclined individual to the net. Most technologies are initially exclusive to the affluent, such as reading/writing, books, CD players, whatever, but then trickle down

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to be adopted by the masses. Advances such as the printing press (and perhaps now WiMAX or other large range wireless tech) help bring the price floor down to the working, and even non-working, class. This is where technology can have a transformative effect, like Dickens bringing indictments of oppressive government systems to

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the masses by selling his monthly numbers for six pence. The problem is that for these sorts of changes, the cost is not the only obstacle. A certain literacy is also needed to make use of what is otherwise a useless box of plastic and metal chips on the sidewalk. But as we see with Dickens or books in general, the saturation comes first and then the skills to make use of it. One good thing that's come from the dot com boom is that companies now see the advantage to anticipating demand. There is no real demand for free municipal wireless; people think it's cool but no one is foaming at the mouth. But companies like Earthlink and Google see the potential in capturing the ambivalent user. Like TV, few people miss its presence in a bar, but if it's there, they'll watch it.

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