Vote Early and Often

Approximately 11:30 am, Tuesday, 2 March 2004, Berkeley, California

Daniel Wilkerson

After wandering the enormous mini-city that is a modern concrete brutalist university dorm, an undergraduate and I find the second American flag and the polling place in a dorm lounge; the afterglow of California sun blasting in from every exposed opening is sufficient to see comfortably by.

"This one is a non-partisan. (Turning to me) Have you used one of these machines before?"

"Yea, but ..."

"I'll show you anyway. The card goes in the slot; here you push 'English'... Oh, I see its already... ok, push 'next'; and then here are the directions and you push 'next' (conveniently not allowing me to waste time reading the directions), and there you go. Just push 'cast ballot' when you're done."

I gaze at oddly-rendered large virtual buttons and start pushing. Hmm, most of these propositions look like bad ideas . . . push, push, push, next, push, next. A ridiculously large button appears; "Cast Ballot" it promises.


Boink comes out my card. The screen turns funny vertically striped colors interleaved with black; "Bad UI artifact" I think. Then goes all black and lines of small white text zip up the left side in little rotated white letters, bottom to top and in columns moving left to right. I tilt my head 90 degrees to the left and read

Caught exception 0x40 . . .

Something about rebooting.

"Uh, excuse me, I pushed 'cast ballot' and the machine rebooted. . . . Excuse me, I pushed 'cast ballot'"

"Then you're done."

"The machine rebooted. There was an error. Did it record my vote or not?"

"Oh. I don't know. I'm going to give you a provisional ballot. . ."


". . . I don't know."

"Is my vote in the machine or in the card?"

"It is in the machine. See, the vote counter is at 12. Did you happen to notice the vote counter before you started?"


"I'll call the technical guy and find out, but before then I'll give you a provisional ballot. I can't let you vote on the machine again, but I don't want you to have to wait."

"I'll wait. I want to talk to him."

She gets a cell phone from another poll worker and hands it to me. "Would you please dial it? I don't know how to use cell phones."

I take it out of the dirty case obscuring the buttons. She reads the number to dial.

"2 . . ."

I push the button for 2, but I don't get a 2, if I recall I get a 6. There is one button on this phone for both 2 and 6. Ok, that's different. Clear. Push the *top* of the '2-6' button. Ok, a 2 this time. We manage to finish dialing the phone number. I hand it to her as it rings.

"Hi. One of the voters pushed 'cast ballot' and the machine rebooted. . . . I see, his vote was definitely not cast. . . . Let him vote again."

"I want to talk to him. . . . Hi, I'm a software engineer; I do work on computer security . . . . I pushed 'cast ballot' and the screen turned black and I got a caught 'exception hex 40'."

"Oooh, exception hex 40; OK, Your vote was definitely not cast."

"You're sure? You're absolutely sure my vote was not cast?"

"Oh yea, you see each voter has a unique id and at the end of the day . . ." he goes on for a while about the internals of their system. I keep waiting for him to conclude with the answer to my question; giving up, eventually I stop him.

"Ok, so that means if I vote again your system will catch it if it is a double vote?"

"Oh, your vote definitely was not cast."

"Right, but if it ends up begin a double vote, you will catch it at the end of the day?"

"Your vote was *definitely* not cast, just vote again. Use a *different* machine."

"So, how do I know if my vote *was* cast?"

"You see, every voter has a unique id and our system can match up the ids . . ." He launches off into the same monologue about the internals. I stop him again.

"Right, but when I vote, if it works, what is it supposed to do so that I know that my vote was cast?"

"There's a screen."

"So there's a confirmation screen that my vote was cast? If I see that then my vote was cast?"


"Thanks." I hand her the phone.

Holding it indifferently, she turns to a co-worker. "He needs another ballot; Non-partisan."

"No, no, he's still on the phone" I point out. "He wants to talk to you."

"Oh!" She turns to the phone. "Just let him vote again; ok."

This time I check the vote counter on the machine. '9'. Ok, it has nine votes in it. Push, push, push, next. Unsurprisingly, same bad ideas show up on the screen again again. Push, push. The Huge Button again promises 'Cast Ballot'. I hear it in the tone of voice of the waiter in the Monty Python skit when he offers the very fat man a mint on a giant silver tray. "Would you like a mint sir?" "(groaning) Oh, no, I'm full." "Are you sure? (cheerily) Just one -- wafer thin! (smiling)" If you don't know what comes after that, but it ain't pretty.


Boink comes out my card. "Your vote has been recored. . . ." claims a screen. Ten. There are ten votes in the machine. I back away slowly.

"You know, you should tell people to remember the number of votes before they start" I suggest.

"Tell you what I'm going to do!" She peels off two "I voted" American flag stickers, jumps up and presses them onto my right chest, smiling cheerfully.

"Thanks for volunteering." I say to them all, walk out into the brilliant blasting California sunshine.

© Copyright 2004 Daniel S. Wilkerson