What Robert's Rules of Order Can Teach Us about Electronic Voting Standards

By Urken, Arnie | The Humanist, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview

What Robert's Rules of Order Can Teach Us about Electronic Voting Standards


Urken, Arnie, The Humanist


Robert's Rules of Order (RRO) is widely quoted but rarely read. In fact, unless you are a parliamentarian, you can get along with a visceral appreciation of the actual content. But when it comes to electronic voting, it is worth taking a closer look at what RRO says and doesn't say about how to design and implement a trustworthy voting system that incorporates technology while not compromising our civil liberties.

Looking more closely at RRO reveals important parallels between Humanist principles and the social and technical processes associated with the design and implementation of voting systems in which the individual voter is respected. Humanism and Its Aspirations says that "science is the best method for determining" knowledge of the world, "as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies" The Humanist Manifesto III also recognizes a "civic duty to participate in the democratic process" as part of an ongoing development and refinement of principles. The core of this "lifestance" is an open procedure that aims to achieve consensus while anticipating the need to correct mistakes to preserve our civil rights.

In the United States, the Supreme Court has traditionally intervened to protect civil rights when plaintiffs have presented evidence of systemic and systematic bias or unfairness in legal procedures. In cases involving elections and juries, for example, the Court has intervened to strike down laws and practices and to stipulate new procedures to prevent biased and unfair practices. No legal system can guarantee that justice will be done, but eliminating unjust procedures removes obstacles to producing legitimate outcomes.

Procedures in technological development are also an important issue because the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) is spending $3.9 billion to help states modernize their voting machines. Most states are purchasing touch screen systems. Recent scandals and revelations concerning the reliability and accuracy of touch screen voting machines suggest that "modernizing" voting machines may actually reduce the trustworthiness of election technology. Americans need a legal mechanism to ensure that new machines don't threaten due process and civil rights by introducing new forms of distortion and corruption that legislators don't understand. Something like an environmental impact statement ought to be added to HAVA to determine if new technology actually improves election processes. Since federal money is at stake, due process complaints and challenges could stop the modernization process until better industry standards are developed. Indeed, many independent computerized voting experts have suggested that we rely on paper ballots, improved management of elections, and better training of election workers until better standards and technology are developed.

Using the court system is necessary because politicians are unlikely to be comfortable with changes in voting systems. Technological change can upset established political patterns and create uncertainties about how to win elections. Sorting out the risks requires learning about social and scientific issues that tend to be low priorities for both legislative representatives as well as their constituents. Obtaining injunctions against using voting equipment that doesn't meet high standards of trustworthiness can contribute to a sustained debate about the issues.

The lack of openness about voting system problems in contemporary U.S. political culture stands in sharp contrast to what is found in the RRO model. RRO is a system for creating voting systems to collect and process votes. Although there are many editions and interpretations of the text, RRO guidelines offer advice about each step of a voting process to avoid errors that can jeopardize the integrity of the outcome. The rules don't specify what has to be done at each step; instead, they highlight issues and options that voting practitioners have identified as important to consider in any voting plan.

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What Robert's Rules of Order Can Teach Us about Electronic Voting Standards
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