Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Voter Suppression, Harvard-Style

(This piece is jointly authored by Harry Lewis and Bill Gasarch, who is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland at College Park.)

There are elections in Hong Kong, but to get on the ballot you have to be nominated by a committee controlled by Beijing government.


Elections for the Harvard Board of Overseers—one of Harvard’s two governing bodies—are almost as well-controlled. A Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) nominating committee curates a slate of candidates, from which alumni make their selections.


But an alternative route to get on the Harvard ballot exists, at least in theory. So-called “petition” candidates have always been rare—but after several climate activists were elected in 2020, the rules were changed to make it even harder. Among other things, the number of petitions to get on the ballot was raised by a factor of fifteen, to more than three thousand. 


This year, noted civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate, concerned about freedom of expression at Harvard, is trying to make it onto the ballot. 


The authors are computer scientists. We are neither technologically na├»ve nor afraid of computers. Harry has long been concerned about issues of student freedom and Harvard governance, and suggested to Bill, Harry’s sometime PhD student, that he sign Silverglate’s petition. This is an account of Bill’s trip through the resulting electronic purgatory.


To add your name, you have to fill out a web form. To access the web form, you need a HarvardKey. To get a HarvardKey, you have to fill out another web form. So far, so good.


The HarvardKey web form wanted Bill’s 10-digit HAA ID, which he was told to find on the address sticker of his copy of a recent Harvard Magazine (sent to all alumni). Bill had one handy, so he looked and found … a 9-digit number. He tried entering that number—no luck. He noticed it began with three 0s, and tried adding a fourth—that did not work either. 


The web form had a number to call. Someone answered, and said some information would be needed before dealing with digits. Name (fine). Year of degree (fine). MIDDLE name (well, fine, though no one but Bill’s mother ever used it, and only when indignant). Date of birth (well, OK, but now we’re getting into territory we don’t casually reveal any more). When he got his MASTER’s degree. Bill did not know—that’s just something Harvard gives en route to the PhD. Turned out he actually didn’t need to know, an estimate was good enough. The person on the phone gave him his HAA ID, which bore no relation to the number on his address sticker. 


Let’s pause there. Some people never call tech support because they have never found it helpful to do so. Any such person with a 9-digit address sticker number could not participate in the petition process.


Bill entered his HAA ID and received an error message saying that … KEY-5003 was missing. Happily, Bill had kept the support person on the phone (this was not his first rodeo).


Missing KEY-5003 turned out to mean that Harvard did not have his email address. He supplied it and was told he would get an email confirmation later in the day.


He did get an email later in the day. It listed eleven steps to claim his HarvardKey. Step 6 was to wait for a confirming email (he thought this WAS the confirming email), but after step 5 the system told him he was not in the system and it could not continue.


Another call to a support line. No, Bill was told, he has to wait 24 hours to get his email address updated, and would not get a confirming email. Just try tomorrow. Like the email said. Except that it didn’t say that, nor had the person he spoke to on the previous call.


Bill waited 24 hours and tried again, and got a little further through the eleven steps—and then was told to wait ANOTHER 24 hours for the account to activate. 


24 hours later he tried again, from home, and failed again. Then he went to his office and succeeded—no clue why.


Now finally he got to the petition, which required Bill’s graduation year—and Silverglate’s­­, which Bill found but shouldn’t have been needed since this petition was specific to Silverglate.


Three days and two phone calls to sign the petition. To be fair, the people Bill spoke to on the phone were kind and helpful. Probably they themselves were struggling with the systems.


And we knew already that HAA is technologically challenged. A few weeks ago, it abruptly announced that it could no longer handle email forwarding. After alumni blowback, it just as abruptly announced that it would NOT end its forwarding service—oddly, while cautioning that the service was unlikely ever to work very well. 


When election officials want to suppress the vote somewhere, they under-resource the voting process, forcing voters to cross town and wait in long lines. What happened to Bill is so comical that it is hard to imagine that the specifics were intentional. On the other hand, under-resourcing the petitioning process, allowing it to be so defective, misinformed, and hard to use that many people won’t exercise their franchise—isn’t that a form of voter suppression?


Why not be true to Harvard’s motto, Veritas, and just post on the web, “For the alumni to choose the Overseers is an anachronism. Today’s alumni voters can’t be trusted to do it wisely. Since we can’t get rid of this system, we are going to make it all but impossible to nominate by petition. Try if you wish, but if you do, abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

1 comment:

  1. Well, I have been inclined to sign the Silverglate petition—but laziness had impeded my doing so.

    However, reading your account of the barriers to signing pushed me to try to sign.

    I click along pretty well on the Harvard website until I have to supply my Harvard Key password. I cannot recall it so I click “Reset Password.” A message comes up saying that an email with a reset link will be sent. That was 4 hours ago but the link appears not to have arrived yet.

    I fired up my password database and discovered, a little to my surprise, that I had a stored password for Harvard. It worked. It then took some clicking around until I found the petition webpage. It required me to identify myself even though I was logged in. (The development office never seems to have any issue with finding me or knowing my class.)

    So, I certify that I am me. I certify that I want to nominate Silverglate. And I have to do some third certification which appears to be certifying that I really wanted to do the first two certifications.