The privatization of voting infrastructure
October 22, 2019 5:38 AM   Subscribe

How Amazon.com moved into the business of U.S. elections - "Amazon.com Inc's cloud computing arm is making an aggressive push into one of the most sensitive technology sectors: U.S. elections."

Monopoly Men - "Businesses, towns, communities, and individuals cannot thrive in an economy where access to the market is contingent on the whims and control of a few private actors."
posted by kliuless (30 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
For the non-twitter users, that "Monopoly Men" link is here: http://bostonreview.net/class-inequality/k-sabeel-rahman-monopoly-men
posted by Emmy Rae at 5:43 AM on October 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


This is like saying that the elections are run by the coal industry because the voting machines run on electricity.

I'm skeptical of big tech as anybody else here, but this is a bad take. AWS is a utility, and it isn't even a particularly monolithic or centralized one (as the article tries to claim).
posted by schmod at 6:21 AM on October 22, 2019 [14 favorites]


This is one spot where I sincerely welcome my Amazonian overlords. Not that it isn't potentially risky as hell. But secure cloud computing and vaguely useable interfaces are core Amazon competences.
posted by wotsac at 6:27 AM on October 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


"...as many as 12% of voters, or around 16 million people, will vote on paperless equipment in November 2020. ...the number represents an improvement from 2016, when 20 percent of voters cast ballots on paperless equipment."

As disturbing as that is, 88 percent with paper was a lot better than I expected.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:35 AM on October 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


Paper. Pencils. Independent statutory bodies.

alternatively: elections run by the lowest bidder, and use the savings to claim a democracy with the best PR. What could possibly go wrong?
posted by pompomtom at 6:43 AM on October 22, 2019 [6 favorites]


Conveniently, you can also buy boxes of pencils on Amazon.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:54 AM on October 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


Related: Is Amazon Unstoppable? -- Politicians want to rein in the retail giant. But Jeff Bezos, the master of cutthroat capitalism, is ready to fight back. (Charles Duhigg for the New Yorker, October 10, 2019)
Amazon is now America’s second-largest private employer. (Walmart is the largest.) It traffics more than a third of all retail products bought or sold online in the U.S.; it owns Whole Foods and helps arrange the shipment of items purchased across the Web, including on eBay and Etsy. Amazon’s Web-services division powers vast portions of the Internet, from Netflix to the C.I.A. You probably contribute to Amazon’s profits whether you intend to or not. Critics say that Amazon, much like Google and Facebook, has grown too large and powerful to be trusted. Everyone from Senator Elizabeth Warren to President Donald Trump has depicted Amazon as dangerously unconstrained. This past summer, at a debate among the Democratic Presidential candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders said, “Five hundred thousand Americans are sleeping out on the street, and yet companies like Amazon, that made billions in profits, did not pay one nickel in federal income tax.” And Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, declared that Amazon has “destroyed the retail industry across the United States.” The Federal Trade Commission and the European Union, meanwhile, are independently pursuing investigations of Amazon for potential antitrust violations. In recent months, inquiries by news organizations have documented Amazon’s sale of illegal or deadly products, and have exposed how the company’s fast-delivery policies have resulted in drivers speeding down streets and through intersections, killing people. Company insiders were accustomed to complaints from rivals at book publishers or executives at big-box stores. Those attacks rarely felt personal. Now, a recently retired Amazon executive told me, “people are worried—we’re suddenly on the firing line.”
The article doesn't touch on Amazon's move into voter infrastructure, but covers its culture, and the ridiculous wealth of Bezos.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:07 AM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


The piece about electoral conflict-of-interest is a little silly--I'd much rather trust the security of the software running the vote-counting software to a security-minded company like Amazon, rather than encourage municipal elections to run on home-brewed servers that are more easily compromised.

The "Monopoly Men" article, though, is really interesting.
The problem, ultimately, is not just raw “bigness,” or market capitalization. Rather, the central concern is about private control over infrastructure.
I am 100% in favor of treating AWS as a utility. The internet is just as important to modern society as electricity or water, and an alarming percentage of it runs through just the two biggest players. Nationalize it.
posted by Mayor West at 7:10 AM on October 22, 2019 [6 favorites]


AWS is a utility, and it isn't even a particularly monolithic or centralized one (as the article tries to claim).

I dunno, they seem fairly centralized and monolithic in that they are all inextricably linked economically and functionally owned by one person, but maybe our definitions vary.

You could say elections were run by the coal industry if the coal industry could meter electricity to impact voting infrastructure such that certain areas would have slowdowns that materially impact the number of votes able to be cast on a given day.

I'm all for treating Amazon as a utility if we socialize Amazon. For Amazon to be mostly owned by an investor-class that is increasingly willing to align in opposition to U.S. interest, not so much.
posted by avalonian at 7:22 AM on October 22, 2019 [11 favorites]


Will there be a return policy on elections?

If there is, I'm tempted.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:06 AM on October 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


As it happens, we had an election just last night in Canada in which all the votes were counted by hand.

You could argue that the Canadian example doesn't apply because the U.S. has 10 times as many ballots to count as Canada, but... well... you also have 10 times as many people to count them.
posted by clawsoon at 9:16 AM on October 22, 2019 [9 favorites]


As it happens, we had an election just last night in Canada

The As It Happens jazzy flute theme music is now in my head. I believe by law someone must now make a terrible pun based on a news story.
posted by Emmy Rae at 9:24 AM on October 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


You could argue that the Canadian example doesn't apply because the U.S. has 10 times as many ballots to count as Canada

The difficulty is not at that there are more ballots but that the ballots are much more complicated and that hand-counting is a terrible way to count votes on ballots with many individual races.

The problems is not that counting is hard, it's making sure you aren't misidentifying votes for state attorney general as votes for US Representative next to it. As it happens, scanners are extraordinarily good at this. If you think you are good at this, I can send you a box of scantrons and answer keys and let you find out for yourself.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:29 AM on October 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


Voting will be free if you have Prime, otherwise there will be delivery fees..
posted by doctor_negative at 9:31 AM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


When there are individual races (in municipal elections), each race gets its own ballot. Easy to count, if tedious. But we vote for a lot fewer things at once.
posted by jeather at 9:31 AM on October 22, 2019


The problems is not that counting is hard, it's making sure you aren't misidentifying votes for state attorney general as votes for US Representative next to it. As it happens, scanners are extraordinarily good at this. If you think you are good at this, I can send you a box of scantrons and answer keys and let you find out for yourself.

Ontario's moved to electronic tabulation of scanned ballots in provincial elections. The results are pretty instantaneous (and the paper ballots are retained for recount purposes).

Just one example, but Cobourg, Ontario, has used online and telephone voting since 2006 for its municipal elections.

Elections Canada:

A Comparative Assessment of Electronic Voting
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:50 AM on October 22, 2019 [2 favorites]


Voting will be free if you have Prime, otherwise there will be delivery fees..

One way to elect a PrimeTM Minister, I guess.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:54 AM on October 22, 2019 [8 favorites]


So if we nationalize Amazon, have we basically achieved fully automated luxury gay space communism?

Because it sounds pretty close. We may never have a better chance.
posted by Naberius at 10:21 AM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


The Election of the President of the United States of America (2020, 2,102,400 min.) A Prime Exclusive
posted by Thorzdad at 11:06 AM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


For those who don't deal with AWS regularly, a bit of context: AWS is the most widespread cloud hosting option for applications, and most modern web apps you use are sitting on AWS infrastructure (or Google Cloud / Microsoft Azure). Large companies like mine with elaborate data centers are generally running, not walking, to AWS as they see others doing it and feel more and more comfortable with it.

Unless you're a consumer of an app someone else is hosting in AWS, or have partnered with a third party to help get you onto AWS, you are responsible for everything you deploy to AWS. That is, if there's a security breach like a publicly available S3 (object storage) bucket, it's on you and not Amazon. If you build your app in one availability zone and don't design it to fail over to other zones or regions, too bad. If you don't come up with a disaster recovery process, too bad. Amazon is not accessing your data. So unlike the "platform weasels" like Facebook, Uber, and YouTube, who claim to be running a platform one moment and create/data mine/profit from the specific content the next, AWS can be legitimately said to just be operating a platform.

This means a couple of things:

1) If you favor breaking up large companies as a matter of course as I do, AWS has pretty much zero to do with Amazon the retail site, other than the fact that they use their own platform. So spinning off AWS into a separate company and regulating it like a utility seems totally doable.

2) Anyone who is actively running their own AWS account and related apps needs to have deep internal expertise in AWS. It's an amazing platform, but it has a steep learning curve and it's easy to do things wrong. My company has over 100 AWS accounts tied to a master account and a central team that monitors security across them all, training programs, cost saving programs, security experts, etc. There's no free lunch. You have to take all the resources you used to use to maintain data centers and legacy apps and plow them into AWS work. Often times the skills overlap is low and you have to invest a ton into training and standards.

On #2, I'm not sure how much Amazon is keeping things black box for the clients, but how good an idea it is to do all this election stuff in AWS depends on the skill of who's doing it, and the process set up for oversight.

As a tech person it's tough to reconcile my anti-laissez-faire-capitalism stance and discomfort with Amazon's dominance with the fact that AWS is the bomb and has revolutionized how software applications are managed.
posted by freecellwizard at 11:52 AM on October 22, 2019 [9 favorites]


Oh - if you like cool interactive visualizations, you should check out the AWS Infrastructure globe-map-thingy. Zoom in and out and click things and you can come to a quick understanding of how pervasive their reach is. No tech background needed to understand it.
posted by freecellwizard at 11:55 AM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'm growing to hate Amazon in general and Bezos in particular, but Trump and Bezos famously hate each other so at least Amazon would probably put some real effort into preventing election meddling in Trump's favor. That's what passes for a bright side in 2019.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 11:59 AM on October 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


You could argue that the Canadian example doesn't apply because the U.S. has 10 times as many ballots to count as Canada, but... well... you also have 10 times as many people to count them.

Unfortunately, american ballots also have anywhere from 10 to 60 times the number of things to vote on every election. In Canada for a federal election you vote for your MP and you're done. In the U.S. you vote for pretty much everything you can think of. That's why you hear about long lines and strategic under-resourcing of polling stations for political gain. You can literally run out the clock (or at least run out people's patience) when each person needs 20+ minutes to vote for everything all the way down to dog catcher and even symbolic resolutions.
posted by srboisvert at 12:32 PM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


This is like saying that the elections are run by the coal industry because the voting machines run on electricity.


Yeah, well, this applies to every AWS story that ever gets posted on MeFi. We still have the same conversion once or twice a week anyway.
posted by sideshow at 12:55 PM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


For those not familiar with US ballots, here's an example of one from North Carolina from 2016 (not my county):

https://www.forsyth.cc/Elections/assets/documents/Nov2016_Sample_Ballot.pdf

You can see that there are 30-40 races at various levels, plus 3 bond initiatives. Only two pages, but I usually print a copy, do some research on each race, and make notes to take on voting day. It's no wonder many people just fill in everything based on party. If we had "straight ticket" voting I'm sure people would just do that.
posted by freecellwizard at 1:00 PM on October 22, 2019


In the U.S. you vote for pretty much everything you can think of.

More specifically, you can vote for a lot more things, but in reality many people don't. It's often difficult for the average person to learn much about certain types of candidates (for example, judges don't have party affiliation, so sometimes people just shrug and vote for the person with the most recognizable name), thus lots of downballot items have drastically fewer actual votes.
posted by axiom at 1:55 PM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Australia has preference voting so not only are there a bunch of boxes you can fill in, you need to rank them by number as well (1,2,3,4,5), the senate vote looks absurdly long like this. The other vote is for your local MP and it's much shorter but also needs to be ranked. Everything is hand counted. I've never really encountered any significant queues to vote in the 3 times I've voted in different locations and it's done on a Saturday and results are usually out by that night.
posted by xdvesper at 3:35 PM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


Fair enough, thanks all for the correction.
posted by clawsoon at 4:25 PM on October 22, 2019


Personally, I'd be happy if we simply started taxing the shit out of Bezos and all the other billionaires and self proclaimed billionaires and their companies. That alone would go a good part of the way to dialing back the gilded age bullshit.
posted by wierdo at 8:51 PM on October 22, 2019 [2 favorites]




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