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Blog exclusive: A miniature TED all about voting

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Last night at the TED offices, we held a special event: a miniature TED all about voting. Three amazing speakers took the stage to present ideas and stories related to our electoral process.

First up, was TED’s own Lisa Bu, our Content Distribution Manager, who spoke about her experience traveling from China in 1995 to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Because individual bank accounts are not the norm in China, Bu shared that she came with her tuition and living expenses money all in cash, stuffed in her pockets. She felt “very important” being able to open her first account.

Bu also found herself surprised to find that everyone — not just politicians and celebrities — get obituaries in American newspapers. “Every life, even a baby’s, is worth remembering publicly. I was moved deeply,” says Bu. “That kind respect and appreciation for individual life — for me, that’s the essence of democracy.”

Bu’s basic point: that if it isn’t a right you are born with, the fact that we all can vote is pretty amazing. After all, in China the American Idol-like television show Super Girl was canceled because officials worried it was promoting democratic fervor.

Computer scientist Barbara Simons, co-author of the book Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count?, spoke next, explaining why internet voting may not be such a good idea. “I call this talk, ‘If I can bank online, why can’t I vote online?’” said Simons. “My goal is to tell you it’s not safe to do either.”

As Simons explained, no website is immune from outside attacks — not the FBI, not Google and certainly not online voting systems developed by localities for elections. She shared what is referred to as the “DC Hack.” In 2010, Washington, D.C., did a pilot test of its online voting system, inviting computer experts to give breaking into the system their “best shot.” Students at the University of Michigan succeeded almost instantly, recoding the system to play their college’s fight song anytime someone cast a vote. Even worse — election officials didn’t realize the system had been hacked. They later discovered the attack after reading message boards.

And hacks and viruses aren’t the only issues with online voting. Online voting would make it too easy to disrupt voting in specific areas, by launching “denial of service attacks,” i.e. having outsiders intentionally overwhelm the network. Furthermore, it would make it too tempting for someone inside the election process — from those who code the voting system to poll volunteers — to tamper with results. If a voting system is comprised, there is no way to do a recount. That very situation happened in a recent election in Estonia, where 25% of the election ballots were cast online. Many believe that the voting system was rigged, as the online ballot results were inconsistent with paper votes, but there is no way to prove it.

Overall, Simons stressed that that any voting system has security risks. She called for us to be more thorough with post-election audits, even if it means an election cannot be called the same night. But, she said, her warnings are not an excuse to skip voting. “The easiest way to be disenfranchised is to note vote,” she concluded.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, of the website, ended the evening with a talk about why he is continually drawn to — and repulsed by — election journalism. As he shared, only 33.5% of countries in the world are rated as having a truly free press. As one of the few, why does our press make the coverage decisions it does?

Rosen points to a few disturbing phenomena he has noticed in this election year — that while newscasters were once active voices, both in debates and in the framing of issues, they are letting themselves be pushed out of the frame by allowing candidates to do this work themselves.  In the past, Rosen says, journalists have been afforded respect on the principle of, “I’m on the scene, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Recently, he sees journalists and broadcasters giving up this authority. One consequence: that for the first time since 1988, the issue of climate change was not brought up all election.

So what can be done? A lot, says Rosen. He would love to see citizens build the agenda for which issues are most important to them, and then have newscasters and journalists flex their reporting muscles to make sure answers are given. Second, he’d love to see a distortion index — that in addition to fact checking, there be some measure of how far and wide pieces of misinformation have spread. And finally, he wants news networks and publications to look to answer questions for the public, rather than letting talking heads from both sides debate without conclusion.

Overall, last night’s event was a lively discussion that made us excited to vote today.