The origin of the word spam.

Okay, here’s something entirely unrelated to voting. On June 15, 2011, I sent an email to some friends telling them that I was puzzled by the debates surrounding the origin of the word “spam”, as relates to junk email… because someone told me, a long time ago, what it means.

In the early 80’s, I was selling software to a medium-size company in northern NJ and was taken on a tour of the place. When I saw scores of employees stuffing envelopes with glossy advertising material I asked my guide what they were doing and she replied, “They’re sending out SPAM.” I asked what that was and she said, “It’s an acronym for Sales Promotion and Marketing.”

So… after reading one too many theories about the origin of the word “spam”, I decided to make an entry in Wikipedia. I wrote: “In the early 1980’s, companies that bulked-mailed unsolicited advertising material routinely referred to it as ‘SPAM’ – their acronym for ‘Sales Promotion and Marketing‘”.

But guess what? Wikipedia deleted my entry due to “lack of citation” (Argh). I tried a second time, but they deleted it again. Luckily, my words were on the site long enough for someone to see the entry and steal it (which is fine: my ego ain’t _that_ big) so you can now see the explanation occasionally pop up if you search for the “origin of the word spam”.
But back to the email I sent my friends on June 15, 2011. That email – which, of course, I saved –  carried a subject line that poked gentle fun at myself. It said, “My contribution to humanity.”

Jim Madison Sez….

I’m finding the history of voting in the U.S. to be a fascinating narrative. The reason I’m delving into it, by the way, is because I’m surprised at how many reputable, thoughtful people and organizations actually want to do away with the ballot. Apparently, many people believe that the lack of accountability and the implied corruption of the process have totally discredited the “art of Electioneering”, as James Madison referred to it. But, in a letter to Caleb Wallace, in 1785, Madison said this:

“…as to the mode of suffrage I lean strongly to that of the ballott, notwithstanding the objections which be against it. It appears to me to be the only radical cure for those arts of Electioneering which poison the very fountain of Liberty. The States in which the Ballott has been the Standing mode are the only instances in which elections are tolerably chaste and those arts in disgrace. If it should be thought improper to fix this mode by the constitution I should think it at least necessary to avoid any constitutional bar to a future adoption of it.” (Excerpt of a letter from James Madison to Caleb Wallace. August 23, 1785; from “The Papers of James Madison”, Digital Edition, University of Virginia)

In other words, the “Father of our Constitution” felt that, despite the flaws of ballot-based voting, it avoided the flaws of all other methods.

The history of voting is replete with stories of ingenuity, resourcefulness – and, of course, fraud. There’s also some humor. For example, in democratic Greece, voting was done via “ballots” that were made of broken shards of pottery, called ostrako. A Wikipedia article explains that voters used these shards because paper was too expensive – but broken pottery was everywhere. The main use of these ostrako arose when voters wanted to banish citizens – or “ostracize” them. (What a terrific word origin).  At one of these numerous votes in Greece, an illiterate man approached Aristides, “the Just” and asked for help in inscribing the name of a person he wanted to have banished. Aristides agreed and asked for the name. “Aristides”, came the man’s answer. When Aristides asked why, the man replied that he was sick of hearing Aristides being referred to as “The Just.”

Our Story So Far

Why Vote Word is essential for the recent low-turnout elections. With local elections, the chances of an election being decided by 20 or 30 votes is a lot greater than with state or federal elections. Thus the likelihood is higher that you’ll be calling or emailing your friends to ask them to check if their vote was recorded correctly.  Here is how that would work, using the example of a state-wide contest.

“So aren’t we trusted to be part of the solution?”

That’s what a friend said to me recently. She was talking about all the ways experts are going to solve the problem of voting accuracy for us. “But we voters don’t have to do anything? We’re not trusted to check our own votes?” Her point was that no matter what the truly qualified experts come up with, we voters should have the ability to check up on those software and hardware engineers. New electronic voting machines may indeed be highly accurate. But why do we have to (once again) assume the passive role? Why are we being asked to blindly trust the computer experts? It’s so simple: give people the ability to look up everyone’s vote -anonymously! – on the Web.

(October 19, 2006). As we rush headlong into another election, I listen to the many radio shows that are asking the question, “How confident are you that your vote will be counted?” Well…

Right over here!!! Pick me! Pick me!

(February 2, 2006). The big news today is that the US PTO issued patent number 6,991,161 to Vote Word. The long wait is over and I’m delighted. If you want to read the many pages of fine print, you can go to the US PTO web site and spend a lovely evening learning the many in’s and out’s of secure electronic voting. (On that site, change the drop-down to “Patent Number” and then type 6991161 in the box.)

The subject of voting and electronic voting booths will most likely start to make itself visible in the coming months. This is because 2006 is a mid-term elections year. The many media, even the responsible ones, are simply unable to keep all issues in the public eye all the time. So, leading up to the elections, we may see some newspaper articles and editorials as well as the occasional radio or TV piece on the current state of electronic voting reform.

It’s my guess, though, that the heavier coverage of DRE (Direct Recording Electronic) issues will take place only after the elections are over – and then it will be in direct proportion to the number of closely-contested November elections. On this subject, The League of Women Voters quotes Edward Foley of the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University: “The real test of a voting system is how it does when there is a close race. Had the 2004 presidential election been closer, it would have exposed that the system remains perilously inadequate to the task.”

Even paper-based voting systems don’t provide the ability to look up your vote after the election is over. Vote Word is the only system out there that makes our voting process completely transparent.

(November 19, 2005). As I wait for my patent to be granted, I’ve mostly watched the state of things, especially during this last election. Speaking with people, it astonishes me that so many of them believe that election auditing will never get better. The cynicism of our age, I reckon. Contributing to this, I guess, is the fact that there were very few well-publicized DRE mess-up’s this last time around, and that gives encouragement to the hobgoblin apathy. Such is the life of an idea like this. We’ll probably go through these cycles for the short-term. Then, when the media start talking about  the legislation that’s slowly moving through the chambers of Congress (requiring printers on all voting booths) the debate will once again get loud… and, thus, healthy.

(May 23, 2005). Interesting email this weekend. A person who runs a conspiracy-oriented web site sent me a note that said, “Machines have no place in the voting booth”. And that was it.

I’m thinking that that’s quite an opening position for negotiation. No machines, period. Granted, we’re going through an occasionally rough transition period with DRE voting booths, but we’ll give up a lot more than we gain if we abandon the effort to smoothly automate the voting process.

‘Course, we should not blindly trust that our election results are 100% accurate. But we should recognize that DRE’s have the potential to empower the voter (using a Vote Word, of course) rather than cheat the voter.

(May 9, 2005).   It’s been just over two months since I announced this invention and it’s been quite a ride. Talking to people about voting booths elicits responses that range from a yawn to an emotion-filled red face.

If you try having a conversation with someone about voting, you’ll be pleased to find that voting is one of the few subjects about which we pretty much all agree – at least on the basic level. After all, it doesn’t matter where you find yourself on the political spectrum, the fact is that voting is the basis of our democratic process and so it’s
one of those institutions that people everywhere hold sacred.

It’s when I get into the details with someone (and, believe me, I’ve buttonholed my share of poor listeners) that I discover what people really think about the way we do our voting. Most people love the idea of being able to check their vote on the web. It just makes sense.

But not everyone. Perhaps the most disturbing conversation that I’ve had so far is one with a U.S. Congressional aide who fully supports the federal government’s requiring every voting booth to have a printer attached to it. It’s an approach that even the League of Women Voters has warned against. No matter. This aide said, “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing at the state level: what we do at the federal level trumps it”. It’s encountering that kind of arrogance that keeps me going sometimes.

I guess that’s the most important job for me right now: to point out that most people want auditable elections, not paper-based elections. If the paper-based people stop and think for a second, they’ll have to admit that a re-count of paper ballots doesn’t any more assure accuracy than the original count. The only way to convince a voter that his/her vote was recorded and counted is to let the voters audit their own vote.