Not everything needs a tech ‘solution’ – especially voting systems

10 Feb 2020

Image: © jakkaje8082/

Whether it’s an Irish general election or a US presidential caucus, when it comes to casting a vote sometimes the best technology we have is a pencil and paper, writes Elaine Burke.

As the counting continues in Ireland’s latest general election, one confident victory we can call from last week is that of the analogue voting system.

The primaries and caucuses to decide the presidential candidates in the US and Ireland’s election system of proportional representation through the single transferable vote (PR-STV) each have their own unique intricacies. Ireland’s voting system is entirely analogue and likely to remain that way following a disastrous dalliance with e-voting in the early 21st century, which everyone involved would rather forget.

The count in an Irish election is a thrilling one – if, like me, you’re into that sort of thing – and the 2020 general election has been no disappointment on drama. With party leaders struggling to get elected on the first count, ministers losing seats and even romantic leads playing their part, not even the Oscars could pull attention away from all this entertainment.

The PR-STV system can seem complex to any outsider more familiar with first-past-the-post voting and there are many Irish citizens who refresh their knowledge prior to a vote. This year, we even had the help of students from Glenbeg National School explaining how it all works.

But for all its complexity – and drama – our PR-STV system is effective, efficient and democratic. And it’s all analogue.

Comparing the Irish count centres’ bustling hands, bowed heads and ballot sheets loaded into labelled shopping trolleys, with the technological mess of the US Democrats’ Iowa caucuses is enough to make anyone pay their respect to the pencil-and-paper method.

No winners for the Democrats in Iowa

Dubbed “one of the most stunning tech failures ever” by one reporter, the app-based system deployed for the Democrats first round of presidential candidate selection was winning no votes last week.

Both US parties’ caucuses began last Monday (3 February) and, by Tuesday, we knew that Donald Trump had won the Republican vote with 97.1pc in favour of the impeached-but-acquitted president.

For the Democratic party, however, the count laboured on until Friday following a series of tech-induced mishaps. The final result showed a 0.1pc difference between Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg at the top, but by then the whole count had been slated as an outright mess based on some terrible technology practices.

‘Shadow built its app in as few as two to five months. By comparison, the 2016 app spent about a year in development’

The Democratic party used a mobile app to run the vote, assuming that this would help calculate and report results faster and more accurately. That’s not new for the caucuses: apps were used in 2016 and we didn’t hear anything about them because the system worked as it should.

This year, though, instead of sticking with the system that was tried and tested in 2016, the Democrats turned to a relatively unknown app development team called Shadow Inc. By all accounts, Shadow is a very early-stage start-up with no tested experience on a project like this. It has ties to other organisations, but even they are trying to distance themselves after last week’s disaster.

Depending on who you believe, it appears that Shadow built its app in as few as two to five months. By comparison, the 2016 app spent about a year in development.

This year’s app wasn’t even vetted for the Apple or Google app stores, which means users had to ‘sideload’ it – something that the average smartphone user simply wouldn’t be familiar with.

Unsurprisingly, then, the big day comes for Shadow Inc’s caucuses app and the people meant to use it are having difficulties. They can’t download it, they can’t install it, they can’t run it. And even if they can get that far, they haven’t been properly instructed on how to use it.

Some caucus leaders decide to call in their votes rather than use the app – something that was also common in the 2016 caucuses. Yet, for some reason, preparations weren’t made for this eventuality and callers ended up on hold for hours and some even got cut off before they could report results.

On top of all that, a coding issue meant that only partial results were reported by those actually using the app.

Sometimes analogue is better

All in all, the Democratic Iowa caucuses app was a huge disaster with none of the best practices of development in place. Often, the big risk discussed when technology is added to an election process is security, but this debacle highlighted another: good old-fashioned incompetence.

Tech is not a silver bullet or a sticky plaster. It’s a tool that is sometimes wielded by those who don’t really know what they’re doing. And when bad tech meets decision-makers who don’t know how to tell good from bad to begin with, you are in a world of trouble.

This episode also speaks to tech’s ugly habit of providing solutions to problems that don’t exist. If it ain’t broke, don’t add a tech layer to it. Combined with inexperience, the addition of technology can explode the possibility of introduced errors as well as obfuscating the patterns behind them – and errors with a lack of transparency are simply not what you want in a voting system.

If you think PR-STV is tricky, just try and get a group of primary school children to explain an obscure coding error in less than four minutes. Even great developers can struggle with that one.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.