Tomorrow we have midterm elections. That is not just an excuse to see an excellent School House Rock parody, it is also a chance to talk about managing quality and process improvement. But first, let’s get that parody out of the way.
The process improvement angle comes from a pair of NPR stories on voting machines (The Current State Of Voting Machines, Oct 27, & Officials In The Dark About Voting Machine Glitches, Sep 15). Ever sophisticated voting equipment has been a growing trend in the past decade. People all around are anxious to avoid another election decided by butterfly ballots and hanging chads. However, complicated equipment is prone to problems. That is all the more true when the equipment is infrequently used and those in charge of running an election in a given jurisdiction changes over time.
The shocking point of these pieces is just how little sharing of experience and learning there is across users of voting machines (from “Officials in the dark…”).
PAM FESSLER: Earlier this year, election officials in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, were testing optical scan machines shortly before the state’s primary. For no apparent reason, some of the machines froze up and even shut down – right in the middle of counting ballots.
Election Director Jane Platten turned to technicians from the machine vendor for help.
Ms. JANE PLATTEN (Director, Cuyahoga County Board of Elections): And they looked at us with the blank face that I’ve seen so often when we’ve encountered problems with voting systems.
FESSLER: They were as perplexed as she was. So Platten did what’s she’s done before.
Ms. PLATTEN: I had my staff hurry up and get on the phone with every other jurisdiction in the country who uses the DS 200 system. We called California. We called Wisconsin. We called Florida, and we found several counties in Florida where they had experienced this problem.
FESSLER: The company, Election Systems and Software, came up with a temporary fix. But Platten says it would have been a lot easier – and far less nerve-wracking – if she’d known ahead of time that another state had had similar troubles, and that no votes were lost. She says the vendor knew about the problem in Florida, but believed it was unrelated.
Importantly, this is not an isolated incident. NPR also reports that in 2008 there were issues with Diebold voting machines in Humboldt County in California; Diebold had known about these problems for four years. In Illinois this year, the Green Party candidate for governor is incensed that his name is misspelled on the final review screen that Chicago voters see. The Chicago Election Board is pointing fingers at its private contractor.
In many ways, this is an amazing story. It is hard to imagine that any industry in the private sector would put up with such slipshod service. Imagine what would happen if a piece of industrial equipment routinely malfunctioned and the vendor did not routine issue software patches and service bulletins to it users. That equipment manufacturer would not be in business long. However, that seems to be how Diebold and its competitors are acting.
To be fair, voting machines do pose some special problems. First, the typical machine spends the majority of time offline and locked up. A manufacturer cannot simply push out an update the way Apple or Microsoft can. Further, even if the machines are out and plugged in, they are probably not on the Internet; the danger of their being hacked or tampered with likely exceeds the benefit of regular updates.
That said, not systematically tracing back the root cause of problems and promulgating that knowledge is inexcusable. One of the experts NPR spoke to advocates a national database of voting machine problems. That way problems in Florida cannot hide from those running elections in Ohio. This will make things better assuming that the problem can be well described and a fix identified and that election officials make an effort to check the database.
There is another, more market oriented solution: Servicize voting machines. What if Diebold didn’t sell machines but got paid for successful, problem-free election? Every polling place that backed up because the machines kept going down and every delay in report results would cost the company money. I can’t think of a better way to make sure that any problem only occurs once.