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Voting Machinery for the Masses

Benjamin Mako Hill (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Emerging Topics, Ruby, Web Applications
Location: Portland 255
Average rating: ***..
(3.67, 3 ratings)

In academia, in business, and in the non-profit world, there are dozens of new voting technology initiatives creating new, better, election technologies. Today, we enjoy the ability to vote more anonymously, more securely, more verifiability and—with improved election methods that let us count votes better and vote preferentially—to actually make better decisions. Most of the best systems are already implemented by free and open source software.

Of course, few of these technologies are actually used by anyone. Governments and states are the exclusive targets of most of these advances and, with few exceptions, governments and states are the least likely group of election-runners to adopt new election technologies. Maybe the technology will screw up. Perhaps people will be confused. Perhaps your new election method that doesn’t disadvantage third parties is simply unattractive to the politicians in power from the two dominant parties. Meanwhile, in our normal lives, we all continue to make group decisions with little or no technology at all. And we usually do it poorly.

Voting and elections are not the exclusive domain of governments and voting technology shouldn’t be either. The openness of much of the best work in this area and many of the most advanced tools means that free software and open source election and decision-making tools are uniquely suited to applications in a variety of fields. Election reform doesn’t need to be something that we think about twice a decade.

Hill will present his work on RubyVote, an election method library in Ruby used in a variety of different free/open source voting applications. RubyVote provides implementations of many of the best (and most algorithmically complex) election methods and makes use of these systems easier for folks who don’t, and shouldn’t need to, care about the math. He’ll also talk about Selectricity, an free/open source web application that makes it easy to create and run elections. Both tools implement the state-of-the-art of election method research and voting technology while focusing on everyday decisions.

Rather than focusing on government- and state-based elections, RubyVote and Selectricity focus on everything else. These tools have employed the superior Schulze method preferential voting method—once used nearly exclusively by election method geeks in the Debian project—to decide things as important as the membership of a non-profit board of directors and as simple as when to have a meeting and where to go to dinner. The system is also currently in use on MTV to decide which music videos go into rotation.

RubyVote and Selectricity have eschewed work on the “sexier” problem of government- and state-based elections but that’s precisely why these open tools are successful. With use by groups like MTV on board, new, free software and open source election technologies are earning a track record and becoming familiar. With time, this might even pave the way to more traditional voting reform. After all, more votes are cast in some American Idol votes than in many mid-term Congressional elections.

Photo of Benjamin Mako Hill

Benjamin Mako Hill

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Benjamin Mako Hill is a technology and intellectual property researcher, activist, and consultant. He is currently a Senior Researcher at the MIT Sloan School of Management, a Fellow at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, and an adviser and contractor for the One Laptop per Child project. He has been an leader, developer, and contributor to the Free and Open Source Software community for more than a decade as part of the Debian and Ubuntu projects. He is the author of several best-selling technical books, and a member of the Free Software Foundation board of directors. Hill has a Masters degree from the MIT Media Lab.

OSCON 2008