I. In Focus This Week
‘By the way, we have to do something about that' Part II
Tech world weighs in on how technology can help do something about that
Editor’s Note: Last week we took a look — generally speaking — at what caused some of the long lines voters faced what some possible solutions are. This week, we’ll look specifically at the role technology may have played in slowing things down on Election Day and what those in the tech world think needs to be done to improve the process. In an upcoming edition, we’ll speak with local election officials to get their take on what caused the lines and what they would like to see happen to help alleviate them.
On Election Day, at one precinct in Washington, D.C. the line to check-in snaked around the block in the early morning chill. Once voters made it inside to the check-in table, poll workers struggled through the paper poll books to find names.
After voters checked in, those wishing to use the one DRE machine queued up in another line that circled around itself while those wishing to cast paper ballots were only held up when the poll worker overseeing the optical scan machine was called away to help a voter using the DRE.
The average wait time for those trying to cast a ballot before lunchtime was about two hours.
While two hours pales in comparison to what some voters faced on Election Day, as many experts agree, it’s still too long for a voter to wait to cast their ballot.
What role technology — or lack thereof — played in slowing things down on Election Day remains up for review and debate, but experts agree that technology has a huge role to play in fixing what went wrong.
“For the voter, too much depends on the luck of the draw,” said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting. “In a jurisdiction with good contingency plans and good training, or where you didn't have to rely on a machine interface for marking your ballot, you were generally in pretty good shape. But yes, there were locations where equipment problems resulted in long lines.”
Following the election, on behalf of 29 experts in the field of technology and voting, the California Voter Foundation sent President Barack Obama a letter asking him to follow up on his promise to “do something about that” and to pay special attention to the technology aspects of elections.
“I hope our letter is read by the president and helps him develop a thoughtful and well-informed position about election reform,” Alexander said. “I hope it motivates him to invest his resources and attention into this issue area, which is so neglected and underfunded at all levels of government.”
Alexander hopes the president appoints a panel to explore the problems witnessed on Election Day and then recommend changes that would minimize the problems in the future.
One major issue is the role DRE’s played in slowing up the process. David Dill, professor of computer Science at Stanford and also on the board of Verified Voting said DRE’s lead to a host of problems on Election Day. He noted that DRE’s are harder to set up, thus making elections start late; they malfunction; and they are expensive and therefore there are never usually enough to accommodate voters.
“Optical scan ballots, scanned either in the precincts or centrally, are the most widely used voting systems in the U.S,” Dill said. “We should replace DREs with optical scan systems and it will reduce lines.”
DRE machines have their supporters and Michelle Shafer, director of communications, SOE Software, a Scytl Company noted that it wasn’t necessarily the machines themselves that caused problems, but a lack of machines.
“DREs are much faster and more accurate at recording the voter’s intent than having to mark a paper ballot with a pencil,” Shafer said. “Additionally, DREs provide less opportunity for error. A vote center would need to have every ballot available to every voter…. Clinging to the past with the purported security of paper ballots and antiquated voting methods will continue to produce long lines. “
Anecdotally voters too seem to be supportive of the continued use of DREs and in several observed instances on Election Day were willing to wait in line to use a DRE when the lines to cast a paper ballot were shorter, if they existed at all.
Cook County, Ill., which didn’t experience some of the long line problems that other jurisdictions did, uses a blended voting system giving voters the opportunity to cast either paper ballots or use a DRE machine. Jan Kralovec, director of elections for the county said elections staff in the clerk’s office think about the county’s voting system all the time.
“It’s never that far from your conscious,” Kralovec said. “The voters really, really like the touchscreens. They will stand and wait for a touchscreen. Our equipment is holding up pretty well, but we are getting to the point where parts and supplies are getting more difficult to come by. Ideally we would like to move to newer scanners, but we just don’t have the money to do it.”
Douglas W. Jones, associate professor, University of Iowa Department of Computer Science acknowledge the need for improved voting systems, but cautioned about the process.
“We need to avoid replacing all of our equipment at once. Statewide mass upgrades are bad for the state budget, and they are bad for the voting machine vendors,” Jones said. “If we have a steady market, doing machine replacement on a county-by-county basis, so that there is a steady and relatively constant demand, prices will be stable, manufacturing will be stable, and the income stream the vendors need to finance the development of the next generation will be steady. Crash programs are bad for everyone.”
Alexander noted that unlike smart phones and desktop computers, we use voting machines very infrequently and therefore never really get good at it.
“Voting systems are ‘mission critical’ - that is, they have to function successfully for a certain window of time and then the opportunity is passed,” Alexander said. “I believe we can build a better voting system, but it isn't coming from the existing marketplace. Until we make an investment in something really ambitious, it's safer to stay with low-tech systems like optical scan.”
Of course voting machines aren’t the only technology that voters will face on election day.
Some jurisdictions are moving to electronic pollbooks and reports from those that are using them have been positive.
“Electronic pollbooks that are linked in real time would have solved many of the voter identification and eligibility verification challenges at polling sites,” Shafer said.
Franklin County, Mo. clerk Debbie Door told a local newspaper that the $100,000 expenditure to purchase 100 iPads to use to check-in voters well worth it. She told the paper that Franklin County did not experience the line problems that many others did because voters were able to check in so quickly.
Kravolec noted that Cook County will be moving to electronic pollbooks — albeit not iPads — starting with municipal elections in February and April.
Another technology many in the field agreed would help speed up the election-day process is the ability for voters to access as much information as possible prior to heading to their polling place.
“The availability of online lookup tools has been a great asset to voters, helping them more easily find their polling place or verify their registration or vote-by-mail ballot status,” Smith said.
And with increasingly lengthy ballots — something absolutely everyone seems to complain about and cite as source of the problems on Election Day — easily being able to review those ballots online ahead of the election is crucial.
Want to get those in the elections world riled up? Ask about Internet voting. And that’s what a lot of people were doing in the days following the November election. If we can securely bank online, why can’t we cast a ballot online?
“Trustworthy Internet voting is not going to happen in the future, because we don't know how to do it,” said Jones from the University of Iowa. “Really, the problem of how to do Internet voting securely has been studied repeatedly since 1999, and there is very strong agreement among computer scientists that they don't know how to do it. These people aren't amateurs, either.”
Smith said that the security issues surrounding Internet voting are a larger problem than those surrounding DREs, but that it’s hard for people to grasp because we spend so much of our daily lives online.
The lack of support for Internet voting doesn’t mean that the Internet can’t be part of Election Day and help ease some of the congestion we seem to see every four years.
“We believe there are many good uses of the Internet, including getting information to voters that they need. Messaging voters on their smart phones or making a webfeed of ‘short wait times at this vote center’ available could make a big difference,” Smith said.
So what is the solution to the long lines on Election Day? Is it better technology? Is it more and better-trained poll workers? Is more nontraditional options like early voting and vote-by-mail? Ultimately there is no single silver bullet, but one thing is certain there are a lot of very smart, thoughtful people trying to figure it out.
“People underestimate how tricky our system of secret ballots really is,” Dill said. “It took a long time for people to refine the procedures for secret ballot voting. Time and time again, we've adopted new voting systems without thinking through the implications. That happened with DREs. Let's stop and think before the next ‘innovation’.”
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