Helping LA County Build a Voting System

elections, accessibility, reform, standards

This past week I was at the kick-off meeting of the LA County Voting System Assessment Project's (VSAP) Technical Advisory Committee. The VSAP is Registrar/Clerk Dean Logan's intense and groundbreaking effort to design, develop, procure and implement a publicly owned voting system. I am honored to be asked to serve on such an important body.

LA County is the largest election jurisdiction in the US, with 5 million registered voters, 10 languages, 5,000 precincts and a very large physical area. The county currently uses the InkaVote Plus voting system (with Audio Ballot Booth for accessibility), which is essentially an overhaul of former punchcard equipment to use inked styluses for marking and to provide in-precint checks for the voter in case they make mistakes.

Here is the InkaVote Plus system and the Microcomputer Tally System (MTS) that is used to rapidly count (>1,200 ballots per minute!) ballots after they're returned to the Registrar's Norwalk, CA headquarters:

InkaVote+ with Audio Ballot Booth

MTS unsheathed and ready to tabulate

My fellow committee members include:

  • Henry Balta (Senior Assoc. CIO, LA County)
  • Mike Byrne (Professor of Psychology and Computer Science, Rice)
  • Josh Franklin (IT Specialist, NIST)
  • Diane Goldin (Policy Coordinator, AATAP)
  • Joseph Lorenzo Hall (Senior Staff Technologist, CDT)
  • Brian Hancock (Director, Testing and Certification, EAC)
  • Jared Marcotte (Technology Manager, Pew)
  • Noel Runyan (Principal, Personal Data Systems)
  • Rich Sánchez (CIO, LA County)
  • Pam Smith (President, VVF)
  • Charles Stewart III, (Professor of Political Science, MIT)
  • David Wagner (Professor of Computer Science, UC Berkeley)

The mission of the TAC is to provide technical advice to LA County through a design and development process to meet a variety of goals and principles that LA County has determined its voting system must meet.

While we'll have an official web page and other materials soon for public perusal, I was able to take a number of photos and videos during a tour of the tabulation and storage facilities that we had during the end of the day. Find them at this Flickr photo set.

I'll leave you with the following video, that shows just how fast their card reader tabulation system, the MTS, can count ballots -- a blazing 600 ballot cards in 28 seconds! This is just one example of a metric that will be difficult to match in a new system!

Trolls of the long-lived variety

wtf?, chilling effects, berkeley, wikipedia

Some of you close to me will know that I spent a brief period of unpleasantness trying to do good work on Wikipedia when I was in graduate school. I haven't made serious substantive edits to Wikipedia since that time.

The "high-water mark" of that period was when I started to try and moderate some Wikipedia disputes as part of the mediation cabal. I've always been a diplomat and have a passion for helping folks come to a common understanding. One instance particularly stood out as unpleasant: it resulted in someone I can only term a "wacko" writing a 60-page letter to the Dean of my program, AnnaLee (Anno) Saxenian, about alleged misconduct on my part as a mediator. Anno, of course, paid zero heed to it as she's familiar with my integrity and diplomatic tendencies.

Fast forward to this weekend, I received a communication from the person who felt wronged, almost 7 years later (and wrote the 60-page letter to Anno). He had the gall to reinstate a demand for monetary compensation (I forget why).

Anyway, in the interest of not feeding trolls but holding them up, I give you Thomas Cool, likely still indefinitely banned from Wikipedia:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: W.r.t. democracy
Date: Mon, 18 Feb 2013 09:51:24 +0100
From: Thomas Cool / Thomas Colignatus

Dear dr. Hall,

You may recall my person from an unhappy situation at wikipedia in 2006. Someone asked me what I thought about the current entry on Arrow's theorem, and this caused me to update my comments on that. It appears that wikipedia has been misleading its readers since 2006. That update of my comments is in English as a supplement to a Dutch text:

I think that it is fair to apply 4% interest over the seven years since 2006. The sum of $150 turns into $197. I use paypal at (still the same). My advice is that you also buy a copy of Mathematica and a license of my Economics Pack (a professional licence now is $99), so that you can start studying on the problem.

Allow me to congratulate you on completing your Ph.D. thesis. My hope is that you are better aware of scientific integrity now. Nevertheless, allow me to advise you to discuss the issue with your director Leslie Harris, just to be sure. We must hope that a Center for Democracy & Technology really understands what democracy is about.

Sincerely yours,

Thomas Cool / Thomas Colignatus Econometrician and teacher of mathematics Scheveningen, Holland

PM. The other relevant links:

Please note that I switched from to this different location, but otherwise the links are the same.

Thunderbird and .ics files from Exchange

system, hacks, wtf?


Outlook should die, die, die.

Short version: if you use Thunderbird to read email and you regularly get meeting.ics files from people, install Show All Body Parts in order to open/save them.

Longer version: Lately, I've had the following problem: Using Mozilla's Thunderbird email client (v17.0.2), when I receive a meeting reminder/calendar entry from a co-worker -- meeting.ics -- no matter what I do, I cannot seem to save the attached file. When I attempt to "open" it, Thunderbird responds with an error and says there's no file and when I "save" it, no file is saved. Nothing. Frustrating.

Up until today, I had been able to reasonably cope with this by looking at the raw email message source ("View" -> "Message Source"), which includes the .ics file in text at the very end.

It's not pretty; it looks something like:

Content-Type: text/calendar;
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit
Content-Disposition: attachment;

PRODID:-//Google Inc//Google Calendar 70.9054//EN

Not ideal, but oh well. At least I can read it.

However, today, I did that and saw this (!!!):

Content-class: urn:content-classes:calendarmessage
Content-Type: text/calendar;
Content-Transfer-Encoding: base64


OMG. That's not readable. It's our old friend base64 encoding.

Sigh. It's not hard to decode base64 and any good techie should be able to do it... but this is my email and why should I have to write a script or something just to read email!?

So, I dug a bit deeper.

It turns out this is a "feature" of MSFT's Exchange/Outlook product line. That is, the MIME type they use for this is multipart/alternative which means, "here are a few different versions of this email, pick whichever one you want, they are the same". This is useful if you want to send a plain text version of an email and also an HTML version of an email that looks prettier and includes clickable links and such.

However, Outlook and Exchange include text/plain, text/html and text/calendar... and -- here's the kicker -- not all the stuff in the text/calendar version is included in the other two! And to make things totally ridiculous, Outlook transforms email into base64 encoding!!! So, you can end up exactly with the situation I had today: I had a calendar invite but no indication from the body of the email the date and time of the meeting, and when I viewed the message source, it was unreadable without decoding from base64.

Turns out, the Thunderbird extension called Show All Body Parts will display all the alternative message formats when you ask it to ("View" -> "Message Body As" -> "All Body Parts").


BTW, this is a 3.5 year old bug: Bug 505024.

And, we're back...


Due to a php upgrade at my wonderful host Birdhouse, this blog has be inoperable for a few months... I've upgraded the b2evolution software underneath and will try to write about once a week. I've disabled comments as they're totally useless, don't read comments!

Note that my work, CDT, has its' own set of blogs I contribute to regularly.

"Can't Load Visual Basic for Applications"

system, hacks, research

I recently migrated from an older MacBook Pro 15" to a newer 13" and whenever I launch Microsoft Office Word, I get the following error... and a doozy of an error it is:

Not only is this an error that makes Word completely unusable -- you have to force quit it -- but you can tell that there are many, many error windows on top of one another due to the solid black of the drop shadow (Mac application windows provide a bit of shading around them to visually distinguish them... if you have, say, hundreds of windows on top of each other, that shadow becomes pitch black like this).

Googling for an answer didn't seem to turn up anything useful... the typical Windows-esque bullshit responses of "repair disk permissions" (don't do that) and reinstalling MS Office (only as a last resort!). Finally, this post from VCU had the single piece of information I needed to fix this: an outdated version of Endnote X5 was causing the problem and upgrading solved it. Of course, shittier software than Endnote is hard to find, so you might be better off uninstalling it altogether and supporting Zotero's Word citation integration. That's what I'll be doing next...

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