No. 22 • 2020-11-04

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We can do this better

Another sleepless election night and incredibly close race. You’d think that 230+ years into our democracy, the fundamental process of voting would be reliable, robust, and routine. But as recent elections have demonstrated, for many the process of voting is not routine, nor is it easy. Elections are perhaps the single greatest collaborative act, and anything involving 130M+ people is going to have a great deal of complexity. Given the increasingly high stakes and close margins, how can we ensure that future elections are not as susceptible to misinformation, confusion, and disenfranchisement?

I made the decision to cast a vote in person on Election Day. Actually, I requested and received a mail-in ballot for both the Pennsylvania primary and general elections. I believe in mail-in balloting… as states like Oregon and Washington have demonstrated it is normally reliable, secure, and robust to interference. But over the past few months we’ve seen outrageous efforts to disrupt a straightforward process: crippling the US Postal Service to increase uncertainty of delivery, monitoring of drop boxes to intimidate those trying to avoid those delivery uncertainties, and legal efforts to block any pre-processing of mail-in ballots to delay the count (to delegitimize those votes). This is what ultimately persuaded me to cast an in-person ballot using an electronic voting machine (with printed verification), after voiding my mail-in ballot. I wanted to make certain that my vote would be counted as quickly as possible on Election Day. (Voting early in Pennsylvania was equivalent to mail-in voting, meaning those votes would be counted more slowly.) And as we’re seeing now, the morning after, the in-person tabulated vote is showing a vastly different picture of our state (with Trump far ahead) than the close outcome likely after a full count of all mail-in/early votes. Unfortunately, this has already opened the door to ridiculous claims of impropriety, playing upon people’s impatience and fear. (And yes, it is very concerning how close this election is, but that’s a topic for another time.)

So why is this so difficult?  Well it’s a complicated problem, with countless variations and nuances on an enormous scale.  One would think that technology could help in this situation, and it does (mostly behind the scenes in the tabulation of results and the rapid aggregation of counts across districts, counties, and states). But if our bank accounts, credit cards, and Amazon purchases can live on our devices and “in the cloud”, shouldn’t we be able to vote that way? There are very good reasons we don’t (current technology would make elections even more susceptible to hacking overall), but the widespread perception is that voting should be easier. And within some people these difficulties kindle misplaced suspicions, misguided assertions of fraud, and ridiculous vote-stealing conspiracy theories.

The reason it’s so easy for us to interact, transact, and just act out much of our lives online is that there have been massive investments by tech companies in developing and refining that infrastructure. We see something we like, provide a quick authentication with our fingerprints or faces, and we make payment and receive our goods, sometimes even on the same day. Much effort has been made into making the User Experience (UX) as smooth and painless as possible that it also makes us feel that everything should be so easy. 

A substantial amount of industry resources go towards recruiting top technical talent graduating from Colleges and Universities. Yes, many of the world’s greatest young minds devote their talents towards making it easier for us to shop. Why aren’t we putting the same amount of investment into advancing the voting process, efficient tabulation, and election security?  It would seem to be the ultimate UX problem, one that the very future of our society depends upon solving.  Well, if you’re a good computer scientist or UX designer you’re not going to make Google or Facebook money by working on voting infrastructure. But that’s what’s needed… the very best UX designers, coders, and cybersecurity experts working to advance the most integral process of our democracy. 

We need a way, beyond individual altruism, to incentivize the country’s brightest minds to work on this. There are longstanding models like the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the armed forces, and AmeriCorps, that subsidize education for a commitment to service. I propose a DemocracyCorps, dedicated to ensuring that everyone can vote and that every vote counts. Graduates would commit to 2 years of working towards improving the electoral process (making technical improvements, combined with voter engagement and expansion efforts). Given the exceedingly high (and rising) costs of higher education, it would create lucrative career pathways for a broader and more diverse representation of students (especially in fields like computing). Tech companies could (and should) also offer 1-year sabbaticals to current employees to work on election systems (it’s really the least they could do given the social media-fueled mess of the last few elections). An additional incentive would be the chance to work with (and recruit from) DemocracyCorps graduates.

So here we once again, sleep-deprived and anxious, awaiting the results of a far-too-close election. While there’s no perfect system for voting, at the least we should be trying harder to improve the process. Much effort is put into making our devices into essentially addictive slot machines. Let’s turn that energy towards something much more important: making our elections truly reliable, robust, and routine.

I’ve shifted the newsletter to a bi-weekly schedule,
a pace that I hope is sustainable for the long term.
My next newsletter will be posted on November 18.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Philadelphia Lullaby Project [World Cafe Live] Beautiful new lullabies written by Philadelphia-area parents and caregivers with songwriters/teaching artists from the area. Created in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.
  • Decrypted By Us: A community by and for students from groups underrepresented in Computer Science. They make videos that represent and speak to underrepresented CS students to encourage them to pursue their interests and goals. 
  • Beyond the Sea [VOCES8 Scholars] A virtual collaboration of UK and US singers participating in VOCES8’s training program. Missed this a few months ago when it premiered, but it’s a great arrangement of Bobby Darin’s classic. 
  • 17 Players in Five States, Composing Over the Internet [NY Times] A peek behind the scenes of the modern music ensemble Alarm Will Sound’s process of working with composer Tyshawn Sorey to record his Autoschediasms.
  • E.T. Theme [Samara Ginsburg] The latest of her virtual collaborative cello performances… I think we could all use a little nostalgia and inspiration today.
  • Dear Theodosia [Hamilton cast members] Another virtual performance from the musical, featuring those Burrs and Hamiltons from the different productions. They’ve covered much of the show in virtual performances… I look forward to the virtual rendition of Farmer Refuted 😉
  • Pachelbel’s Chicken [YouTube] This is a few years old, but it’s just that kind of day…

What I’m creating

I don’t intend to always focus this section on Virtual Chorister app announcements, but I do have a big update for iPad in the works… The next version will allow you to load and view a musical score alongside following and recording videos. The new version will be available in the App Store within a week. 

Virtual Chorister for iPad with score view… Coming soon!

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