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Voters News Service: What Went Wrong 237

ddtstudio writes "Baseline Magazine has a pretty good recounting of how even the national TV networks can have a computer network go wrong -- in this case the night of the last U.S. election. From the article: "VNS had been trying to rewrite and retool the system for years. This was just the most recent attempt and it failed miserably." Oracle, IBM, BEA Systems -- all crashed."
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Voters News Service: What Went Wrong

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  • by mkweise ( 629582 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @08:39AM (#5079792) was three elections ago. I hate it when people only count (and vote in) presidential elections, as though the other ones didn't matter!
  • Oh BooHoo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by billmaly ( 212308 ) <(bill.maly) (at) (> on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @08:43AM (#5079800)
    Quote from article: "Also, the networks would be unable to give the type of detailed explanations as to why voters voted the way they did this time around. For example, according to TV network analysts working the election, the networks wouldn't be able to tell viewers why particular demographic groups voted for specific candidates nor the issues that they considered most or least important when voting. "

    So, what this means is that people were able to go late to the polls, and cast a vote free from the influence of network prognostication. They were able to cast a vote that they thought was right, free from the spectre of "throwing a vote" as the election had already been "called" by *INSERT NETWORK NAME HERE*. Boo Hoo to the networks. Wow...why the hell is this a bad thing???

    Up until the 1960's, most US citizens were able to vote just fine, all by themselves, without the need for knowing why *INSERT DEMOGRAPHIC HERE* people voted for *INSERT CANDIDATE NAME HERE*. Why does it need to be different today? There's already enough blather on TV, if we could eliminate it from just one night every 4 years....oh man, that'd be sweet! :)

    Of course, I won't know because I'll be watching something that is entertaining, rather than a farce, on my TiVo!!! :)
  • Too many cooks? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jlanthripp ( 244362 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @08:43AM (#5079801) Journal
    Quoth the article:

    All members, including 19 newspapers, shared in the management of the company and oversaw its $33 million operating budget for the current four-year election cycle.

    Could the failure of VNS be the fault of having far too many PHB's droning on about mission statements and TPS reports?

  • by dubbayu_d_40 ( 622643 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @08:53AM (#5079827)
    So they're having a meeting dicussing requirements for a stable system, and an idiot say's "we must have voice recognition."

    Java, Oracle, DB2, BEA - nope, those were symptoms of a deeper failure...

  • Two words.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by primebase ( 9535 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @09:05AM (#5079869)
    "Poor Management".

    As someone who finally bailed out of an extremely poorly run company (WebMD) burdened with dumb management, it's easy to see the echoes.

    The list on the last page of the article is nearly perfect, with one small addition:

    6) Listen to your employees!! You hired them because you thought they were good at what they do. Why would you ignore their input into the process now?

    Nothing in this article is the "fault" of the technology (Oracle, Java, IBM, Linux, or anything) itself any more than it's the fault of a head of cabbage.

    It's just poor management.

  • Re:What happened? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by finkployd ( 12902 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @09:06AM (#5079871) Homepage
    So....they want them to use Java instead of OS/390? That is like saying "I want you to use Perl for your program instead of Solaris". How does one replace an Operating system with a language?

    Nevermind the fact that Java runs just fine under OS/390

  • "The first step was to change the VNS board of directors. Before the 2000 meltdown, the board was composed of representatives from the election units of each network. After the 2000 fiasco, a vice president from each network was on the board."
    "That new board took bids from computing companies to completely rewrite the VNS system. One stipulation: That the new system use more flexible and current programming languages-- Java and the Extensible Markup Language-- rather than OS 390 to gather, compute and deliver data to the media outlets."
    The results were exactly as should have been expected. People who don't understand what they are doing cannot manage highly technical projects.
  • by whovian ( 107062 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @09:12AM (#5079891)
    the TV networks confirmed what they had feared for months: They couldn't derive any meaningful exit-polling data from a system they had just spent between $10 million and $15 million to overhaul.

    Projecting winners and losers in various races would take several hours longer than in the past.

    Y'know, it is truly a sad day when you can no longer count on the media to tell you what might happen and instead have to settle for what did .
  • Re:Stress testing (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Minna Kirai ( 624281 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @09:13AM (#5079893)
    Or make sure you know what kind of better hardware you could buy, if needed.

    When developing a system you should try to overload it so you can recognize what a failure state looks like. This may give your engineers valuable insight.

    What is the resource that gets exhausted first? What is the system's behavior when it is completely overloaded? Does it just stop functioning, or does it lose data? Or maybe generate bad data?

    These things could be nice to know, and may suggest quick improvements so that, if 6 years later the customer puts in 20 times as much usage as was originally budgeted, the failure isn't completely embarrassing.

  • Re:What happened? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jallen02 ( 124384 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @09:15AM (#5079903) Homepage Journal
    I don't completely agree with that. Just because a client is not completely a technical genius they can still impose technical requirements. Some of the time it actually makes sense. Some clients might have plans for future interoperability, or anything. If a client makes a request, especially something so generic as using Java and XML, the development team is being payed to honor that request within reasonable limits.

    Some of the time a client picking a language and implementation details can be a real PAIN! Yet, there are almost always circumstances, possibly just silly bias, that cause them to ask for this. Maybe they are planning to have development staff capable of handling that application. Maybe they already have a development staff that could only maintain an application written in Java. Maybe they don't want MS technology in their apps. I don't think it is always fair to assume someone imposing a request on a developer is immediately wrong. The client is *always* right. Even if they are right and it is doomed to fail. I don't think using Java and XML doom a project to fail.

    Anyway, some of the time it is easier to go with the flow as a software development company;)
  • by salesgeek ( 263995 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @09:27AM (#5079952) Homepage
    I actually liked having a little suspense and watching the ACTUAL local returns rather than some "projected" guestimate that was in at 2:00PM. People actually voted up to the end here. If VNS died completely I'd be fine with it.
  • by technomom ( 444378 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @10:09AM (#5080255)
    Where in the article did it say that BEA, Oracle and IBM systems crashed?

    I read...

    The databases which housed the election results and local demographics for more than 4,600 precincts were running on both IBM's DB2 and a version of Oracle 7. They were to be consolidated into Oracle 8i database software.

    "This caused all kinds of problems," one source close to VNS says. "You're not only talking about a clash in culture and expertise but you're also talking about trying to create places for data to fit that just aren't there."

    For example, participants say the new system wasn't able to compare previous election results. If a network analyst wanted to know how independent voters in a particularly county were voting compared to the 1996 or 2000 election, the system couldn't deliver the data quickly, if at all.

    "The fields just didn't match up," one network analyst says.


    The last sentence says it all. Whoever did the data modeling for the new system screwed up. They didn't seem to understand the requirement that the news services would need to do historical comparisons.

    Oracle and IBM didn't crash. Project Management dropped the ball. The crux of the problem appears to be that there were several project managers. No one was in charge.

  • by nlinecomputers ( 602059 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @10:22AM (#5080352)
    And yet votes still got counted. Reporters were still able to cover the votes being tallyed.

    Now why do they use this? And why is it government funded?

    Voting in this country is a fraud. Voting machines of any kind can be rigged. They don't count the ballots at the polling place. How do I know that my ballot box is the same one that arrives at city hall.

    When Jimmy Carter goes to some third world nation to help prevent a rigged election he makes them count the votes at the polling place. How come we don't do that here?

    It is a fraud. I don't vote because of it. Our rights were stolen from years ago.

  • by Grab ( 126025 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @10:38AM (#5080477) Homepage
    Interesting stuff.

    My problem with this article is that it's describing the scenario as a "perfect storm", ie. it only happened bcos a whole bunch of unlikely things occurred together at precisely the wrong time, and there wasn't anything ppl could do about it.

    In fact, as you've shown, the project went into freefall, and no-one at any oversight level had the balls to say so. As usual, it seems they committed the standard IT sin of saying "let's put all this incompatible data together, with a new architecture, a new interface and a new team", which has a well-tested track record of producing failures.

    I'm constantly amazed by failures of IT projects being categorised as "one-off" events. History has shown that the *success* of a major IT project is a one-off event, and can only be achieved by major effort and good organisation. And in general, the guys at the coal face know full well that the project is screwed, but the layers of management filter out the bad news, so it ends up that managers don't know quite how bad it is until the iceberg actually hits. Some software guru (Yourdon?) said only half-jokingly that the chance of success is in inverse proportion to the cost of the project, and above some cost (or some number of people) the project is basically doomed to fail. ;-)

  • by ErroneousBee ( 611028 ) <ku.oc.kcocnahlien:lien> on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @11:11AM (#5080799) Homepage
    The article states that they dumped the S/390 hardware, probably in favour of some *nix servers. Its the same old story, company ditches the mainframe, company spends millions trying to get the replacement to work, company fails, company dies.
  • Re:Oh BooHoo (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Darby ( 84953 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @11:17AM (#5080875)
    Sure enough, there was incredible fraud occuring in Florida (most of which only came out after the election was decided).

    The major fraud in that election in Florida happened some months before the election when Jeb had his Secretary of state illegally rob 10s of thousands of citizens of their right to vote.

    This won't show up in this sort of system and it is far more significant than any of the other issues since the election wouldn't have even been close had the laws of our country been followed.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @12:15PM (#5081444)
    "Maybe the crash was deliberate?"

    That is a very plausible possibility that will get no airplay.

    It is just not in the interests of the "powers that be" for there to be independent evidence of actual vote counts... Ponder a bit about why they denigrated the paper ballots. They want everything to go electronic, and to eliminate all outside monitoring of the count, such as the VNS was doing. SO they can have COMPLETE control over the eventual results.

    If anything, the VNS reports durign Florida 2000 actually SUPPORTED what was eventually discovered, (but what was AGAIN suppressed by the media): That BUSH LOST FLORIDA.

  • by ChaosDiscord ( 4913 ) on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @12:46PM (#5081661) Homepage Journal
    Now why do they use this? And why is it government funded?

    The "this" in question, the Voters News Service, is funded by news networks and newspapers, not the government. They use it so that they can provide as up to the minute information on voting results as possible, and so that they can provide in depth analysis of voter behavior.

    Voting in this country is a fraud. Voting machines of any kind can be rigged. They don't count the ballots at the polling place. How do I know that my ballot box is the same one that arrives at city hall.

    I suggest volunteering to work at the polls, or to be a monitor of the polls. You're free to watch the entire process yourself. In hotly contested races, the various parties will send people down to monitor things themselves.

    It is a fraud. I don't vote because of it. Our rights were stolen from years ago.

    If you are absolutely convinced that the system is fraudulent, what are you doing about it? Might I suggest:

    • Vote anyway. It doesn't take long and gives you a certain credibility. Many people will hear, "I don't vote" and hear "I'm lazy and have no right to complain." It sounds more impressive if you say "I vote and I feel my vote was illegally discarded."
    • Monitor the election. Get a few friends and watch the ballot boxes from start to finish to ensure no tampering occurs.
    • Run for office yourself. Then vote for yourself. They can't steal that vote from you (after all, you can find out exactly how many votes you got, and if you don't get at least one, it will look suspicious).
    • Run your own polls. The various parties certainly do. If your polling results significantly diverge from the actual results, use it as evidence to...
    • Demand recounts. Collect as much evidence as you can and present it to as many people as you can. Hand recounts happen every election cycle in some places.
    • Demand accountable voting systems. The new touch screen systems are a sham that provides an opportunity for fraud. Voting should be done on paper in an easily human readable fashion. Locally (Madison, Wisconsin), we use a paper ballot with broken arrows next to each candidate. You just draw a line to complete the arrow of the candidate you want. It's easy for an automated tabulator to read, but if you need to recount, humans can trivially read your vote.

    Your claim that our election system is rigged is extremely serious. If you seriously believe it, don't you owe it to yourself and your country to fight back?

  • Re:Oh BooHoo (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 14, 2003 @01:56PM (#5082129)
    > built into the very fabric of our culture is a paranoia about abuses of power by the government.

    It's only paranoia if it is not true.

"I will make no bargains with terrorist hardware." -- Peter da Silva