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November 06, 2006

Action on Election Day and VoterStory.org update

First, if you’re a US citizen, please vote. But you were going to do that anyway. It’s also important that you appoint yourself as a beta (or alpha tester) of whatever new election hardware and software is being used in your polling place. There’s a lot of new technology that’s been installed to prevent hanging chad and it’s inevitable that, in some places, the cure will prove worse than the disease – at least the first time around.

Because technology is likely to be the problem, those of us who are nerds have a special responsibility to be watchful and helpful. We need to look for problems.  We need to report them if we find them.

But where do we report?

Locally, first, of course.  Most problems will be inadvertent and cured by taking a particular machine offline or fixing it in some other way.  But, if a problem isn’t being addressed, then it needs to be escalated.  Both major political parties (at least) will have poll-watchers at almost every polling place. These are amateurs but a good avenue for making sure a complaint gets attention from whichever party is being disadvantaged.

Local media in all but a few very corrupt jurisdictions will be interested in problems, particularly those that aren’t being addressed.

Procedures are different in every state but the secretary of state’s office almost always has a role in assuring successful elections.

There are a number of national organizations that you can complain to.  See a good list by David Cohn on newassignment.net.

One of the organizations on David’s list is VoterStory.org about whom I posted late last night.  They provide an election problem reporting widget I was going to put on my blog site. I had too many unanswered questions to put up the widget then. Many of these questions have been answered.  However, I’m not comfortable enough to put up the widget – at least until they clarify and provide more info on their website.  By the time they do that, I’ll probably be in the air for the night and unable to post anything.

However, in case you do want to use their widget on their website to report a problem, I’ll tell you what I know and don’t know and what you may want to check for updates on their site.

Development of the widget has been supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, and the Open Society Institute. I verified this independently with the Ford Foundation which also confirmed the participation of the other two organizations. My contact in the Ford Foundation urges support of this project.

My main concern has been how the personal data you are solicited to give in the widget will be used and safeguarded.  Obviously, if you don’t give any identifying data, you can’t be part of the followup on a problem you report.

I both exchanged email and talked with Rob Stuart, President of EvolveStrategies, the political consulting organization which did the work behind the widget. Rob tells me that they were only asked to do this development two weeks ago and that they know it is rough around the edges and that some questions need more answers.

One of my concerns is their blanket disclaimer which gives VoterStory and its unnamed affiliates and the equally unnamed organizations to which they are forwarding your data an unlimited right to do as they want with both that data and specifically your identity. This is simply too broad.  He says that it was written by their lawyer (I could have guessed) and that they will look at changing it.  Be sure to check here on their website to see whether this has been made more reasonable.

Rob says that affiliates and receiving organizations will be listed on their website later today. That’s something else you want to check.  You should know who you are giving your information to.

Somewhat reassuring, it is not mandatory to provide any of the information they ask for, which includes name, address, email, and phone number. The idea is that some organization will get back to you by email so, if you do respond, you may want to give only an email address until you know what organization you are dealing with. If you have an email address you use when you know you may get spammed, use that one.

Rob could not assure me that participating organizations will not add you to their lists. He and I disagree on how important that is.  This alone would stop me from running the widget on my site since there is no field in it which allows you to opt in or out of ending up on the lists of various organization.

Rob also couldn’t cite formal criteria by which they vet the organizations they send data to.  He did say they are looking at websites, checking with their sponsoring organizations etc.  Organizations are signing up with them online as we speak, he says.  In response to my written question about whom data will be shared with, VoterStory responded today:

“Our goal is to share data as widely as possible in order to assure the highest likelihood that voters experiencing problems on election day can get assistance. To that end we are setting up a data sharing protocol that will allow groups who have election day intervention capacity to get a stream of data. We are already working with the People For the American Way who have agreed to plug this into their national response system.”

“Widely as possible” is a little scary. I understand this is a rush job for good reason. But am concerned about setting up this protocol and accepting organizations as data recipients on election eve.

One reason I care about this whole issue is that I think the kind of crowd-sourced journalism which this widget supports is a good thing, perhaps an essential method for preserving liberties in a technical society.  I’ve suggested it for a Net Neutrality monitoring project.  It’s important that it be done right.

After the election I’ll blog more academically about what we’ve learned. In fact, if you have any experience with VoterStory – good or bad, feel free to post a comment on this blog. You have to give an email address (not verified) to do that. It won’t show on the blog.  It’s as secure or insecure as TypePad and my computer. I won’t use it except possibly to write back to you about whatever you wrote.

But the questions for tomorrow aren’t academic. You’ll vote for the best (or least worse) choice. You’ll report problems as best you can.  I hope I’ve given you information that’ll help you decide whether VoterStory.org is a good way for you to report problems.

We need an election which is not only fair but perceived as fair.  If there are abuses (they’ll be some), they need to be addressed. We can help.

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