FAQ: Framing The Issue: Did the Machine Perform Flawlessly?

(Note: I have benefited from reading and contemplating the concept of framing issues from the linguist George ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’ Lakoff founder of Rockridge Institute and cultural anthropologist Jeffrey Feldman, founder of the frameshop. While contemplating press reports on the recent election in a moment of sudden inspiration, I realized everyone has been asking and answering the wrong question – incorrectly framing the issues and our concerns with electronic voting. Here is my meager attempt changing the frame and starting toward more accurate understanding.)

We are asking the wrong questions when we ask if the audits proved that the “Machines Performed Flawlessly” or if the “Machines Incorrectly Counted The Votes”. We are using a misleading frame.

We often refer to voting machines as if they were the actors responsible for our elections. We have heard the Secretary of the State say that the machines performed “accurately”, “well” or “very well”. Newspapers have said that a “machine error nearly cost [an election]”. I plead guilty, having made similar statements such as “If the machines regularly fail to accurately count votes”.

Machines are not responsible for our elections – people are. Machines are not responsible for how they count votes – people are. Machines are not responsible for the results – people are.

What difference does this make? When we hear that the “machines performed perfectly” we know that it stands for a whole group of statements: The machines had no hardware problems, the programming of the machines and the memory cards were both accurate. The pre-election testing must have verified this. The municipality transmitted correct information to LHS and the ballot printer. LHS and the ballot printer did their job correctly, or any errors found were corrected by vigilant election officials…

Yet, the frame we use “machine as responsible actor” sets a paradigm of the machine as the cause of the success or cause the of the problems. Perhaps also reflecting on the person selecting the machine. But when there are problems we can either blame the machine or blame the people – the machine as actor provides a convenient scapegoat. On the other hand we can use the same frame to blame people and deflect responsibility from the machine as in “the machine performed perfectly but the voters did not fill out their ballots correctly”.

Alternate frames set the tone for a more comprehensive understanding of the situation. Let me suggest a frame of “the machine as the tool”, designed, built, programmed, secured and operated by people; one part of the whole system of machine, people and procedures:

We can say “The people and the system performed perfectly”, “The vendors, procedures, and the voting officials performed well”, “There were machine breakdowns yet the system, people, and procedures responded as intended”. “Election officials nearly cost the election when they failed to follow procedures after a machine breakdown”. “The Secretary of the State’s Office nearly cost an election when their procedures failed to adequately cover the situation where…”, or “The Legislature prevented an election disaster in yesterday’s election, having passed a law two years ago that…”

Lets end with some analogies. I doubt we would say that “the marking pens performed flawlessly”, “the marking pens almost cost an election when they ran out of ink”, “the roof cost an election when rain seeped into the vault holding the absentee ballots”, or “the voters cost an election when they could not get to the new polling place because of the road construction and detour”. Or maybe we would, this is Connecticut where the state argued that the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge did not cause people to die, they died from drowning after their cars fell into the river. We should not blame the Bridge for collapsing any more that we should blame I-84 for not draining or Avon Mountain for not keeping trucks from crashing.

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