June 16, 2024

Archives for 2008

Voting Machines are Silent in Princeton Today

In my recent report on the Sequoia AVC Advantage DRE voting machine, I explained (in Section 32) that the AVC Advantage makes a chirping sound when the pollworker activates the machine to accept a vote, and makes the sound again when the voter presses the CAST VOTE button. In important purpose of this sound is to alert all witnesses in the room that a vote is being cast. This makes it harder for people to cast extra votes on the machine. This idea goes back a hundred years: equip the voting machine (or even a simple ballot box) with a bell that rings every time a ballot is cast. In my report I wrote that the AVC Advantage’s chirping sound is not as loud as it should be.

This morning when I voted in Princeton, New Jersey, the chirping sound was not heard at all. When the AVC Advantage machines were activated to vote, and when the voters pressed the CAST VOTE button, there was no sound at all. Configuring the machines in this way is not a good idea. It makes the voters more uncertain about whether their vote was cast, and it makes it easier to inadvertently or deliberately cast extra votes.

UPDATE: Other machines in Princeton are making sounds. Also, some voters who used these very same machines report hearing sounds. So at this point I don’t believe that it’s a county-wide configuration issue. It may be a local, temporary malfunction of the little speaker in the operator panel, or it may be something else.

Repeated voting, though made easier by the absence of a sound, would still require collusion with the pollworker standing outside the voting machine. Such collusion does not require criminal intent. It may take the form,
Voter: I’m not sure my vote registered.
Pollworker: OK, I’ll activate the machine again just to make sure.
This scenario is not as far-fetched as you might think.

UPDATE 2: Another voter reports that when she voted later in the day at a different location in Princeton, she listened carefully (when pressing the CAST VOTE button) for the sound, but did not hear it. In both my case and hers, the CAST VOTE button was lit before we pressed it, so presumably our votes did count, if the manufacturer’s standard firmware was installed in the AVC Advantage.

Louisiana Re-enfranchises Independent Voters

Two weeks ago I wrote that independent voters were disenfranchised in the Louisiana Congressional primaries: unclear or incorrect instructions by the Secretary of State to the pollworkers caused thousands of independent voters to be incorrectly precluded from voting in the open Democratic primary on October 4th.

Today I am told that Secretary of State Jay Dardenne has corrected the problem. Earl Schmitt, a “Commissioner in Charge” (head precinct pollworker) in the 15th ward of New Orleans, reports that all pollworkers were recently brought in for a two-hour training meeting. They were given clear instructions that independent voters are to be given a ticket marked “Democrat” that permits them to vote in today’s Democratic runoff primary election. (Because of a hurricane, the original September 6th primary was postponed to October 4th, and both parties’ runoff primaries are being held today, along with the Obama vs. McCain presidential election. The Democratic Party is permitting independents to vote in their primary; the Republican Party is not. The general election for congressional seats in Louisiana will be December 6th.)

I am happy that the Secretary of State moved quickly to retrain pollworkers. It’s not that no harm was done–after all, those independent voters might have made a difference in which candidates advanced to the runoff–but better late than never, in improving the administration of our elections.

Clarification: Only 2 of Louisiana’s 7 congressional districts required a runoff primary; the other 5 held their congressional general election on Nov. 4th.

Election 2008: What Might Go Wrong

Tomorrow, as everyone knows, is Election Day in the U.S. With all the controversy over electronic voting, and the anticipated high turnout, what can we expect to see? What problems might be looming? Here are my predictions.

Long lines to vote: Polling places will be strained by the number of voters. In some places the wait will be long – especially where voting requires the use of machines. Many voters will be willing and able to wait, but some will have to leave without casting votes. Polls will be kept open late, and results will be reported later than expected, because of long lines.

Registration problems: Quite a few voters will arrive at the polling place to find that they are not on the voter rolls, because of official error, or problems with voter registration databases, or simply because the voter went to the wrong polling place. New voters will be especially likely to have such problems. Voters who think they should be on the rolls in a polling place can file provisional ballots there. Afterward, officials must judge whether each provisional voter was in fact eligible, a time-consuming process which, given the relative flood of provisional ballots, will strain official resources.

Voting machine problems: Electronic voting machines will fail somewhere. This is virtually inevitable, given the sheer number of machines and polling places, the variety of voting machines, and the often poor reliability and security engineering of the machines. If we’re lucky, the problems can be addressed using a paper trail or other records. If not, we’ll have a mess on our hands.

How serious the mess might be depends on how close the election is. If the margin of victory is large, as some polls suggest it may be, then it will be easy to write off problems as “minor” and move on to the next stage in our collective political life. If the election is close, we could see a big fight. The worse case is an ultra-close election like in 2000, with long lines, provisional ballots, or voting machine failures putting the outcome in doubt.

Regardless of what happens on Election Day, the next day — Wednesday, November 5 — will be a good time to get started on improving the next election. We have made some progress since 2004 and 2006. If we keep working, our future elections can be better and safer than this one.

Federal Circuit Reins in Business Method Patents

This has been a big year for patent law in the technology industry. A few weeks ago I wrote about the Supreme Court’s Quanta v. LG decision. Now the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which has jurisdiction over all patent appeals, has handed down a landmark ruling in the case of In Re Bilski. The case dealt with the validity of patents on business methods, and a number of public interest organizations had filed amicus briefs. I offer my take on the decision in a story for Ars Technica. In a nutshell, the Federal Circuit rejected the patent application at issue in the case and signaled a newfound skepticism of “business method” patents.

The decision is surprising because the Federal Circuit has until recently been strongly in favor of expanding patent rights. During the 1990s, it handed down its Alappat and State Street decisions, which gave a green light to patents on software and business methods, two categories of innovation that had traditionally been regarded as ineligible for patent protection. Even as the evidence mounted earlier this decade that these patents were hindering, rather than promoting, technological innovation, the Federal Circuit showed no sign of backing down.

Now, however, the Federal Circuit’s attitude seems to have changed. The biggest factor, I suspect, is that after a quarter century of ignoring patent law, the Supreme Court has handed down a series of unanimous decisions overturning Federal Circuit precedents and harshly criticizing the court’s permissive patent jurisprudence. That, combined with the avalanche of bad press, seems to have convinced the Federal Circuit that the standards for patenting needed to be tightened up.

However, as Ben Klemens writes, Bilski is the start of an argument about the patentability of abtract inventions, not its end. The Federal Circuit formally abandoned the extremely permissive standard it established in State Street, reverting to the Supreme Court’s rule that an invention must be tied to a specific machine or a transformation of matter. But it deferred until future decisions the precise details of how closely an idea has to be tied to a specific machine in order to be eligible for patentability. We know, for example, that a software algorithm (which is ultimately just a string of 1s and 0s) cannot be patented. But what if I take that string of 1s and 0s and write it onto a hard drive, which certainly is a machine. Does this idea-machine hybrid become a patentable invention? As Ben points out, we don’t know because the Federal Circuit explicitly deferred this question to future cases.

Still, there are a lot of hopeful signs here for those of us who would like to see an end to patents on software and business methods. The decision looks in some detail at the Supreme Court’s trio of software patent cases from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and seems conscious of the disconnect between those decisions and the Federal Circuit’s more recent precedents. Software and business method patents have developed a lot of institutional inertia over the last 15 years, so we’re unlikely to see a return to the rule that software and business methods are never patentable. But it’s safe to say that it’s going to start getting a lot harder to obtain patents on software and business methods.

DMCA Week: Predictions Are Hard, Especially about the Future

My previous post on DVD jukeboxes has prompted an interesting discussion among our commenters. There seems to be a lively difference of opinion about how useful a DVD jukebox would be, what it would look like, and who would use it. Personally, I had envisioned a high-end video device that DVD collectors would buy to help them organize their libraries. But some commenters pointed out something I hadn’t thought of: a DVD jukebox—either a set-top device or a portable one—would be a godsend to parents with small children. Children not only like to watch the same video repeatedly, but they’re also far more likely to damage a DVD. Having a sealed, rugged hard drive on which to store a few dozen of junior’s favorite movies seems like it would be extremely convenient.

Of course, I don’t really know. Maybe parents already have devices that fill this need. Maybe the devices would be too expensive or too fragile. But that’s why we have markets: so people can try things to see what works.

It’s worth remembering that new technologies almost always wind up having a “killer app” that their creators didn’t expect. The creators of the Internet didn’t have email in mind, but it was the dominant Internet application by the mid-70s. Visicalc, the first spreadsheet, wasn’t on Steve Wozniak’s radar when he built the Apple II. And Apple didn’t invent podcasting, although they were smart enough to jump on the bandwagon relatively quickly once other people did.

None of these applications could have been developed if the technologies on which they relied hadn’t already been created. But if you’d tried to explain what the Internet, the microcomputer, or the MP3 player was good for before you could create the first one, you wouldn’t have been able to make a very convincing argument. I think the same is true of the kind of products we’d see if DVD ripping were legal. I’m pretty confident that we’d have some useful new technologies, but I can’t say exactly what they’d be.

This is one of the reasons I think DMCA supporters are wrong to point to the DMCA’s triennial review process as mitigating the DMCA’s negative effect on technological progress. The triennial process requires entrepreneurs to explain in advance how a given act of circumvention will benefit society. If we’d held the inventors of the Internet, the personal computer, or the MP3 player to that standard, we might not have any of those technologies.