Voting, the Net and other beliefs

One thing the US election has clearly shown is that the whole method of voting in the country needs to be overhauled. If you don't believe me, take a look at a fine article titled "May the best man lose" from Discover magazine that you can find at www.discover. com/nov_00/gthere.html?article= featbestman.html.

The article explains the mathematics of voting systems and why the current system, in which a candidate can win by a plurality vote without getting a majority vote, is deeply flawed. The article quotes Donald Saari, a mathematician, pointing out: "The plurality vote is the only procedure that will elect someone who's despised by almost two-thirds of the voters."

Of course, it is not much of a guess who will win the next election in 2004. The only uncertainty will be what colour dress she'll wear for the swearing in. But I digress . . .

The thing that is really interesting is how everyone misinterpreted the election results. For example, the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, (who, at any given time of the day looks like he just woke up and is really angry about it) told a BBC interviewer that Dubya Bush "has won the election in the US . . ."

And isn't it curious that despite the volumes of data available through the Internet as well as through conventional channels (Reuters, Associated Press and so on) politicians worldwide opened their mouths to change feet? Even Gore called up Bush at 2:30am on the morning after to congratulate him only to withdraw his good wishes an hour later.

A number of foreign leaders fired off congratulations to Bush - Japan, France and Germany effusively sucked up to Bush. Of course it was only a few hours before they realised that "premature" was descriptive, and they hastily withdrew their messages. If Gore does win, I suspect relations with these state heads may be a little cool to begin with.

Be that as it may, the Internet's impact on this election has been undeniable. There was not only an unprecedented amount of information available but also a huge amount of related entertainment. The explosion of Web sites endorsing or vilifying each candidate was more or less matched by sites that firmly planted their tongues in their cheeks and ridiculed the candidates, their policies, their speeches, their misspeaks, their pets, you name it. But will the 'Net change the way we vote? Nope . . . at least not for decades. If you think the resistance to changing the electoral system is huge, just try to make voting online a reality.

For a start, any failure of an Internet-based voting system would be judged far more harshly than the failure of an offline system. We aren't willing to concede that a computerised system, even if it is better than a noncomputerised equivalent, can be less than perfect.

And rightly so. The alleged abuses of the voting system that we saw in Florida in this election would seem trivial in comparison with the chaos that home-grown and international hackers could create without an impossibly secure online voting system.

But this expectation of perfection is also the reason that so many people have a dangerous tendency to believe any data delivered by a computerised medium. If that data is text or pictures and there's no obvious flaw, then the aura of accuracy is immediately conferred on the data.

I fell into this trap the other day searching for health insurance. One insurance portal came up with a price that had my broker in hysterics - the price was ridiculously low but because it was on the screen, it had to be right: I wanted to believe it. It turns out the price was an error. As were all the pre-emptive congratulations to Bush.

I must go and switch on the TV and see if there's an election update. Of course, I can believe the TV can't I?

Changes and misinformation to nwcolumn@gibbs.com and david_beynon@idg.com.au

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