html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Metaphors are dangerous, kids.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Metaphors are dangerous, kids.

Sac Bee columnist Dan Walters gets some stuff right, like when he totally agreed with me about l*vee vgetation. He blew today’s column, though. Two Fridays back, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen released a UC Davis study showing that every brand and make of electronic voting machine can be hacked. Secretary Bowen decertified all electronic voting machines in a rush; she can’t decertify voting machines less than six months before an election, so she only had a week after getting that report to make that decision. Dan Walters today wrote a very silly column criticizing that decision.

Mr. Walters picked the metaphor of the criminal convictions, and said that Secretary Bowen should adhere to the standard of “reasonable doubt”. He suggests Secretary Bowen, “a lawyer by trade, should reread that section of the Penal Code” and closes with “Bowen, it might be said, disregarded reasonable doubt and embraced the "imaginary doubt" that criminal law forbids.” You might say that, I suppose, if you don’t mind saying irrelevant things.

There are the very obvious problems with his metaphor of “reasonable doubt” is that this isn’t a criminal law case, so it is not self-evident that we should use criminal standards of evidence. And that Secretary Bowen isn’t convicting anything; she’s determining whether electronic voting machines are safe to use in our elections. More than either of those, Mr. Walters completely misses the point of a standard of evidence. The purpose of the standard “reasonable doubt” is to balance two competing societal interests. There is the interest in accurately trying and punishing people who commit crimes, and the interest in not locking up innocent people. “Reasonable doubt” is a signal detection threshold, hopefully set to avoid false positives. With elections however, the interest is in secure and accurate representation of the peoples’ votes. There is no countervailing societal interest. We do not have to set standards any lower than “completely safe and transparent,” because we can achieve that with paper ballots and there is nothing to balance against that*.

Mr. Walters likes his metaphor and uses it to snark about Secretary Bowen, the UCD study and people who distrust electronic voting machines. But if he wants to talk where we set our standards for vote counting transparency or whether the public correctly understands the relative risks of different voting methods, he should discuss those directly. That is plenty interesting enough to support a column, and doesn’t make us doubt whether he understands that criminal evidentiary standards are doing different things than public elections.

*There is the investment that counties have already put into voting machines. But, for one, those are a sunk cost. For two, whatever that amount of money that is, I count it as worth far less than societal faith in our voting systems.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed (I think agreeing, though not complimenting is ok here, right?). I think it was a pretty courageous stand she took, given the $ involved in the electronic machines. I think the theories behind electronic voting is great, but we have enough of a voter-efficacy problem here, we don't need low-confidence in the voting machines to further reduce participation.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Mike Jenkins said...

Don't agree that paper ballots are intrinsically "completely safe and transparent"; plenty of dishonest paper elections in history. Do agree, however with your overall conclusion, though I can't see why we can't have simple, unhackable electronic voting machines.

6:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What was so inefficient about our parents waiting 10 minutes to cast a paper ballot?

Me? I missed the last major election due to 2.5 hour waits and staff untrained with the new "systems".

There are plenty of areas for Diebold's white elephant projects--elections just aren't one of them.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Bilbo said...

Dinosaur that I am, I think paper ballots are the way to go. You can tinker with any system, but I think that electronic systems which can be hacked offer the best chance for fraud on a massive scale. I'll miss the electronic machines, though, because you only need one finger to vote, leaving the other hand free for holding your nose.

4:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Walters, invariably, makes me scream.

Half of the time, it is because of his longtime experience, he cynicism is so deeply entrenched then there's no solution to the problem he raises, and he is simply Eeyore.

The other half, despite his longtime experience, he completely misses the point.


12:11 PM  

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