Sunday, December 18, 2022

Voter Suppression, Harvard Style

The following appeared on Harry Lewis's blog, here, hence it is written in his voice, though it is a co-authored. You'll see why later.  I then have some comments on it. 


Voter Suppression, Harvard-Style

(This piece is jointly authored by Harry Lewis (Harvard) and Bill Gasarch

(University of Maryland at College Park). Harry was Bill's PhD Advisor.)

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 naïve 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.


I originally emailed Harry what I had to do to sign the petition with my point being

`Yes, I am a luddite but that has NOTHING TO DO with why I am having a problem.''

(I had meant to do a blog on that topic. I may still.)

Harry saw this for what it was- Voter Suppression. He wrote the Op-Ed using my story and made me a co-author. (We have never published together so it amused me that our first pub together would be 37 years after he was my advisor- perhaps a record. Does having a joint blog post count?) What is above is basically that Op-Ed (I think the version Harry submitted omitted that my mom is the only one who uses my middle name.) 

He submitted this as an Op-Ed to three places sequentially. 

1) The New York Times turned us down (not a surprise) by not even acknowledging it had been submitted (really?).

2) The Boston Globe turned us down (a surprise).

3) The Harvard Crimson turned us down (a shock!).

Voter Suppression followed by censorship.

AND back to the original issue: Harvey does not have enough people on the petition yet. I urge you to READ Harry Lewis's post on Harvey here and IF you are a Harvard Alumni AND you agree that Harvey would be a good overseer THEN sign the petition. Or at least try.


  1. MIT gave up their email forwarding for alumni in 2019. This isn't really their fault. Due to attempts to reduce spam, forwarding does not work well these days. Instead, MIT is giving alumni mailboxes (using Microsoft Exchange as the email server; I think Microsoft hosts it). After some adjustment, I am happy with the change.

    1. My alum MIT email still is forwarding--I just tested it.

    2. I think I misspoke. I think you can still forward. But, they are offering a mailbox for free.

    3. According to the MIT Alumni website, you get an mailbox. You can also forward. But, you can't turn off the mailbox.

  2. MIT used to ask me and other alumni what we thought. I sent them a letter pointing out that the current round of AI is based on problematic foundations ("neural nets" don't look anything like neurons (yet because they're called "neural", they're getting closer to thinking), the big data/statistical stuff assumes correlation equals causation, the language model stuff has no foundation in logical reasoning or methods for understanding what the stuff it blathers out means whatsoever) and MIT really ought not to have all it's eggs in a foundationless basket and ought to have a plan B for when the next AI winter arrives.

    They don't ask me any more...

  3. "alumni" is plural. "alumnus" is singular for a male who attended the school, and "alumna" is singular for a female.

    1. Alumnae is the female plural, alumni only being appropriate if MIT had been all male in the 1970s, which it wasn't. This being English, I should have said "me and other alums", or perhaps "me and other alumnal persons". But in the sentence in question, a plural is what I intended, and what my Latin instructors at Boston Public Latin School would have hoped I would have managed to get right. Hey, happy new year and Semper ubi sub ubi!!! (To say nothing of "Tibi quuxandum est".)

  4. Other plural nouns: data, media, criteria, honoraria, bacteria, diverticula (no “e”). Do not tolerate the use of singular verbs with any of them!