The Democracy Machine

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The Democracy Machine How One Engineer Made Voting Possible for All
Silman, Jon
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University Press of Florida
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Driven to make it possible for people with disabilities to vote like everyone else, engineer Juan Gilbert, a specialist in human-centered computing, spent 10 years perfecting Prime III, software that does just that. His creation has already been tested in the real world and is earning rave reviews from elections supervisors around the country.

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University Press of Florida
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GATORBYTES TT HE DEMOCRACY M M A CHINEHow One Engineer Made Voting Possible for AllJon Silman


1 As an African American computer scientist, Juan E. Gilbert understands separation and the desire to belong. The University of Florida professor spent most of his college years as footsteps to follow. I was the only one like me. I was the only one who looked you have a community around you. work to helping people who have been marginalized exercise and the female vote, but what about the disability vote? What wheelchair? What about the blind, the deaf, or the intellectually disabled? The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a secret ballot, yet thousands of disabled persons have never experiand voting without help, comfortable in the knowledge that they helped shape the future of their country by their actions. A recent Rutgers University study found that when compared to the general population, people with disabilities vote


The Democracy Machine 3 2 Jon Silman less. In fact, if they voted at the same rate as their able-bodied peers, it would translate to an extra 3 million people at the polls. country since its founding, but for voters with disabilities, the T hey may have trouble reading or seeing the ballot. They may have trouble understanding how to vote or how to use the equipment. Many are scared, or intimidated, or embarrassed. for them to use. What if, he asked, there were a machine that every single per son could use, disability or not. Gilbert is the Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Chair and associate chair of research in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the initiative, which gives state money to the university to attract top talent to Florida. Gilbert brought a team of students with is in human-centered computing, where he focuses on how communities, especially minority communities, interact with technology. Prime III, and designed to be used by everyone, particularly people with intelpeople vote. study to determine how accessible polling places actually were. The results? Forty-six percent of places had an accessible voting system that could pose a challenge to certain voters. The study sure polling places were allowing people to vote without the assistance of others. Jim Dickson, a blind civil rights advocate, compared these systematic voting challenges to the separate but equal doctrine of the late 1800s, which said as long as African Americans rooms, segregation was fair. That concept is preposterous to us locations across the country. Think about it, he said, intellectuconstitutional requirements for privacy are the same as everyprocess in a country where voting is meant to empower. People have died for the right to vote, Gilbert said. I want to make it accessible for every single citizen.Cultivating Community Every story seemed to have a guy in a lab coat who just knew In m iddle school, he was drawn to science and mathhe and he eventually got the bug for computer science. In his junior year at the Miami University of Ohio, a mentor told him education, he said, was marked by a glaring issuethe lack


The Democracy Machine 5 4 Jon Silman change, he would have to be a part of it. eventually at Auburn, for nine years. Then he went to Clem Computing Department. at the front of the room, preferring to sit in the middle of the group, like the nucleus of a cell. cans pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathemathis own team, and why he speaks to middle school students about studying science. W anda Eugene met Gilbert at Auburn University, where she then to Florida. She was instrumental in implementing Prime III. in industrial engineering, but the work, she said, was unsatisfying. She was more interested in computers and how they her to Gilbert. Prior to meeting him, her experiences in college of a team of students doing some impressive work. Gilbert mentioned how the Asian and Indian communities in engineering and computer science at UF are vibrant and out. Y ou need diverse thought, Gilbert said. You need diverse backgrounds. To solve problems you need diverse ideas. backgrounds. Traditionally, math is taught one of two ways, is to understand how students might view math from their own perspectives. The project is called African American Distributed left behind from previous students. An African American STEM student will come to UF, get an advanced degree, and move on. Why ar e Asian students so successful? he asks. Because alone. The key to being successful in graduate school is learning from each other. create a similar environment for African Americans. Gilbert said ar ound middle school is when kids start lookenough minority scientists to look up to. But they see me and they say, Oh. You do exist! Maybe I think about scientists, so Gilbert had a camera crew follow around his team for a YouTube documentary.


The Democracy Machine 7 6 Jon Silman They get a chance to see us in public, he said. Then they STEM education is extr emely important because it applies to the future of the human race and nearly every aspect of political progress, he said. Scientists change the world for the better by solving the complex problems of our age. the crops and how to cultivate the food and share with those in need. what you have for granted. If you cultivate relationships and From Clemson to UFThe University of Florida Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering Dean Cammy R. Abernathy leapt at the chance to snatch Gilbert away from Clemson through the Preeminence Initiative. The initiative is an almost-billion-dollar enterprise to estabroughly double that number. G ilbert made bringing his team a condition of joining UF, and after interviewing them Abernathy agreed. She praises Gilbert as a collaborator who brings people together and bridges interdisciplinary divides. tion, or social sciences. Thanks to Gilbert, Abernathy said she anticipates an uptick in African American recruitment in the collegemaybe even on the whole campus. For Gilbert, the opportunity to come to a state where voting the prospect of testing the Prime III in real-life Florida venues. Voting in America The earliest voting in the United States, according to sources culled by the tory was by voice or paper ballot. The ballots were known as party tickets, and although the government regulated the size and thickness of the paper, the political parties of the time controlled the printing and distribution of it. Fraud was prevalent. In the early 1900s, with the population rapidly expanding, the government took control of voting from the political parties box to prevent tampering with votes, and also what is known as a blanket ballot with all candidates on one sheet. By the 1920s, voters wer e using gear and lever machines in booths with curtains. The machine, according to University of Washington Professor Kathy Gill, was created to prevent fraud, but inadvertently facilitated it.


The Democracy Machine 9 8 Jon Silman when the gears stopped counting (and they did get jammed, accidentally or on purpose), no one knew. Gi ll said that in 1960, when upstart John F. Kennedy de point (0.1%), about half of the estimated 65 million ballots were cast on mechanical lever voting machines. The punch-card system, which involved sliding a card into a device and using a stylus to punch holes through it, was com mon in the 1980s and was prevalent all the way through the year 2000. Around this time, a new type of technology utilizing computers and touch screen voting also entered the landscape. The infamous 2000 pr esidential election changed everything. George W. Bush beat Al Gore by a slim margin. Some of the dispute centered around the physical properties of the punched cardswere the punches dimpled, or were there hanging chads from an incomplete puncture? The confusion and subsequent attention to the issue led to the purpose of kickstarting sweeping reforms of the process. T ucked away inside the legislation are some provisions speity and quantity of polling places, including providing physical access for individuals with disabilities, providing nonvisual access for individuals with visual impairments, and providing Access for Voters with DisabilitiesJim Dickson, the legally blind civil rights advocate, fought to he met Gilbert. Dickson was working on voting accessibility issues with the American Association of People with Disabilities. Gilbert was working on making Prime III a reality. The disability community took the position that if any legopportunity for us to vote privately and independently. Some people with disabilities had never cast an actual se cret ballot. Former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd appointed Dickson to be on the Board of Advisors to the U.S. Election Asthis problem. [Dod d] got right away the following fundamental princirequires an accessible machine in every poll, and [Gilbert] saw there was going to be all kinds of problems with the segregated machine. Gilb ert started designing and testing the Prime III on hunpeople with disabilities. Gilbert, he said, set out to test on many people, with the help of a federal grant. buy whatever type of system they want. Even if new equipment were bought today, he said, it would


The Democracy Machine 11 10 Jon Silman illustrates some of the potential roadblocks Gilbert faces. standards, and tested to the standards all the states and counties have. These stipulations and r estrictions, he said, highlight how ciple that everyone needs to vote on the same device.A First-Hand Look at Voting with a Disability voted back in 1968 with the help of her parents, she said, who explained what to do, how to vote. But Ward is capable of sechines on her own that has been the problem. W ard is a member of the national organization, Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, which works to help people with standing. And you know when they get frustrated it becomes a vicious cycle and I get frustrated, and I start crying. And now me. I need someone to come and help me calm down. But in a anything about which candidates were running, or what issues plain the information in a way she could understand. So she about the process. Prime III, with its user-friendly instructions that include pictures of all the candidates, has helped put her at ease. about the candidates and learn how to be able to do it myself, pendence was her decision to switch parties, which caused a small family rift. It was r eally because I was able to be independent, and not feel like people were telling me how I had to vote, and who I had to vote for, and what issues I needed to vote for, she said. When my mom found out I switched from Republican to Democrat she said, your grandfather is rolling over in his Prime III. for Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, where Gilbert tested the machine. A member of his team videotaped her speaking about the experience, and her excitement was obvious. A lot of times people with disabilities have things tested for already made. In this case, you guys gave us the opportunity to test it ourselves. And that was really cool. W ard smiles. That was very cool, to be able to do it independently welled for a moment.


The Democracy Machine 13 12 Jon Silman It makes me very excited, she said and paused, to be able to do it by myself. And not to have somebody to have to explain it to me. The smile r eturns. So. It was very important and very empowering, she said. And I do have the disability but [also] power now for the votPrime III: From a Challenge to a Reality In 2003, Gilbert was at a conference, in a session about elec not possible because of security issues. Gilbert and his team started discussing the possibility of a secure machine that any single person, regardless of impairment, could use to vote. Such be donethere were too many variables, too many things to the idea was born. W e will have change in voting in America, he said. tion that funded his research assistants and eventually won a Commission. audible and visual instructions to serve both blind and deaf testers. Ther e were problems with the initial iteration, but Gilbert Blind testers seemed to have the most trouble, so when Gilbert and his team went back to add new data and make changes, the team put on blindfolds and turned the machine around. That, he said, put them on the right path. A common misconception about the way the machine works for a sound. That way, you can just blow into the microphone to That feature was one of the hardest to perfect and also a the microphone in noisy areasit would pick up all the background noise. Gilbert and his team struggled with this until they realized there was only a small amount of time each person needed to make a choice. so for that time, the Prime III cancels out noise around it and listens for input from the user. Everyone can use this thing, he said. My ATM is more complicated. One of the hardest features to develop was the way the program spoke to a user. Should someone touch and not listen?


The Democracy Machine 15 14 Jon Silman One of the most natural things we do is converse. Our brains are wired for language. But conversational systems are hard to design. Figuring out that pr oblem was a eureka moment, he said. Another was when they coded it for use in browsers, which essentially made it hardware independent, meaning an election because of the federal funding Gilbert received, his software is open source, meaning anyone can take it and change it if they like, or simply use it, free of charge. Ease is the goal, especially for a human-centered computing hours and the science and the money and travel spent to make it happen. themselves and run it in-house. Essentially, they can have more autonomy and control over the voting process. A typical session with the Prime III starts with a simple sheet of white printer paper. The distinction of paper is mentioned because as Gilbert puts it, many election ballots are printed on county. The paper is placed in a printer next to a touchscreen where the voting area is located. The voter puts on a pair of headphones. The machine says to the user, to start voting, say The interface tells the user what races are available, and the user can even just vote by party line, or give a name. You can you a summary of all your choices. Then it prints a ballot for you. The ballot lists the contests and the person voted for so computer, and the machine prints out a Quick Response, or QR code. The paper with the code is brought to the precinct, and view them and then print them. One of the major issues the general public has with com puter-based voting is the notion that data might be manipulated, stolen, or recorded incorrectly. Gilbert knows this, and although he stresses how serious a problem security is in voting, The paper allows you to not only review your voteto make III is a sophisticated ink pen in that it allows everyone to privately and independently mark their ballot.Testing in New Hampshire three polling locations. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Manning handled most of the logistics, including purchasing and testing. disabilities has always been a priority. In 2005, the state asked tem that allowed voting through a hotline. said. We promised when we saw a better system we would What really sold him on the Prime III was the open


The Democracy Machine 17 16 Jon Silman ried to the company that makes the hardware. Manning pur chased Dell tablet computers and set up dockhave to rely on someone else to vote. The phone and fax machine combo, Manning said, cost mor e W ith this software we save ourselves quite a bit of money, he said. precincts.A Day in the Life cated at the Computer and Information Science and Engineer ing building, near the famous french fry sculpture on campuswas still decorated with the occasional cardboard box here and there. But the view was phenomenal, with sun streaming in through large windows, and a clear line of sight to Century Tower and Turlington Plaza. atmosphere. In the morning, he sat in a conference room with some of a conference, and he drove to UF to invite Gilbert personally to back and forth, talking about this student and that one, and they emphasized how small the community of African American engineers and scientists really is. Gilbert, Kindred explained after the meeting, is well known and well respected around the country, and he knows students who get to see the man speak are more inclined to pursue sci After a short break, Gilbert, on his phone, spoke with an ofwanted to persuade her to use another one of his projects, called Applications Quest, a software that helps choose candidates for jobs and admissions. plained. The software would compare them by attributes in a spreadsheet, and put them in groups or clusters. It will recom mend the candidates who are the most unique or special, in a and Microsoft, but he wanted to do more research. Gilbert suggested he consider becoming a postdoctoral scholar, so he could continue to do work he was passionate about. Maybe, Gilbert said, you could consider staying in academia. The next stop was a meeting with his team about pr ogress on getting a pilot program for the Prime III in a Florida election is a top priority. Also, he had some data from some previous elections that still needed to be analyzed. Some of his students wanted to know when their credits would transfer.


18 Jon Silman he laid out some of his plans for upcoming projects, including the workings of his voting machine and its implications for the future. Copyright 2015 by The University of Florida Board of Trustees All rights reserved Produced in the United States of America. This book may be available in an printed edition. University of Florida ( PO Box 1 13175 (