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SXSW: Newest Ingredient in Elections' Alphabet Soup

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[Image courtesy of sxsw.com]

One of the challenges involved in reaching the entire election profession is the wide variety of organizations dedicated to election officials. These groups make up what I call the "alphabet soup" of elections and include:

+ The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS);
+ The National Association of State Election Directors (NASED);
+ The Election Center/National Association of Election Officials;
+ The International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers (IACREOT);
+ The National Association of County Recorders and Clerks (NACRC); plus
+ Dozens of state associations like the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO) and the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections (FSASE).

While this alphabet soup can be hard to digest, it also offers a wide variety of opportunities for the election community to gather and discuss current events and future developments in the field.

This year, I think we can add a new ingredient to the soup: South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW), an annual gathering in Austin, TX that describes itself as a "unique convergence of original music, independent films, and emerging technologies."

SXSW has typically been a kind of annual geek nirvana, where you're just as likely to encounter the next big thing in tech (social media giants Twitter and Foursquare both hit it big at SXSW) as you are a new film or cool new band.

This year, democracy and the voting process are on the agenda in two panels later today that will bring questions of "what's next?" in elections to the fore:

This morning (9:30 Central) it's Voting's Viral: Voters, Election Offices & Social - a panel organized by UsabilityWorks' Dana Chisnell and featuring Los Angeles' Dean Logan, the Voting Information Project's Jared Marcotte, election geek Twitter maven Jeannie Layson and Pew Internet's Lee Rainie. Their topic:

How do you get reliable information about elections? Many voters get their information about who is running for election and what the issues are from friends and family. Increasingly, those friends and family are online, getting their information from social media sources and passing it on. What's the conversation between voters and election officials? What's the potential for increasing civic engagement through social media? This panel will discuss breakthroughs and cautions, experiences and pointers. What you learn about who is using what and why will surprise you.

Later today (1230pm Central), Paul Schreiber and Seth Flaxman of TurboVote will ask Why Hasn't the Internet Made Voting Awesome? Their focus:

In the United States, only 50% of people vote in presidential elections. That drops to 40% for midterm elections, and 10% for primary, local and special elections. Worldwide, we rank 138th in voter turnout. The Internet has made it easy to find your old friends from college; download any song you want; get shoes delivered the very next day, and help create social change by signing petitions, making donations and lobbying congress.So why hasn't the Internet made voting awesome? Seth Flaxman and Paul Schreiber of Democracy Works will talk about why the voting system is so broken, and how the Internet can route around inefficiency and bureaucracy to increase voter turnout and make voting fit the way we live today.

Panels like this make it pretty clear to me that anyone (like me) who is serious about reaching the next generation of voters and election professionals needs to add SXSW to their calendar.

Elections' alphabet soup is now a little spicier. Best of luck to everyone at SXSW today.

1 Comment


  • Even if Internet voting increased turnout (and there is no evidence that it does; in fact, when Hawaii tried Internet voting in a local election recently, turnout DROPPED by 75%) -- but even if it did increase turnout, it would not be a good idea.

    The problem with Internet voting is that it cannot be made transparent. Public elections require that the public be able to see and authenticate, without need for special expertise, four things: (1) Who can vote -- the voter list; (2) Who did vote (3) The original counting of the vote -- and no after the fact procedure can be substituted for public right to authenticate the first count; and (4) Chain of custody -- to make sure that what is being authenticated is real.

    Internet voting can issue a report, which is a form of circumstantial evidence, making the public believe they are authenticating something, but that is insufficient and not necessarily even real.

    Internet voting can lead voters one by one to examine a record purporting to tell them that their own vote was counted (with no way to verify that this is what was actually counted, nor any way to authenticate the full count); but that is a process that is actually rather meaningless.

    Not all problems have solutions. One insoluble problem with Internet voting is that it is, and will always be, controlled by whatever individual controls the server, or writes the program, or both.

    It is not transparent, which is the main problem, and many experts also contend that it cannot be made secure (but even if it was "secure", that would not solve its transparency problems), and it produces unprecedented, undemocratic, and probably unconstitutional centralization of control.

    Before recommending Internet voting, at least a study should be recommended instead to address the crucial issue of real public transparency, the secondary issue of security and the constitutional issue of centralized control over key parts of the election process. Advocating for Internet voting based on a non-proven hope that it will increase turnout, without addressing the issues that make a public election actually "public", is reckless.

    Bev Harris
    Director - Black Box Voting (.ORG)
    A national, nonpartisan, nonprofit elections watchdog organization

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