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On Building Better Vote Traps: Voting Technology and Elections After 2000

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[Image courtesy of The Onion]

Here's my contribution to the recent report from the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project:

In the aftermath of the 2000 Presidential election - where punch card voting, butterfly ballots and hanging chads created a controversy that took a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve - it was perhaps inevitable that voting machinery would play a starring role in efforts to reform America's election system.

Indeed, after Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) voting technology became, in many ways, the driving force behind the reform debates of the next few years. Armed with the promise of nearly $4 billion in federal funds courtesy of HAVA, states and localities across the nation set out to replace and/or upgrade their voting machines in the hopes of addressing many of the problems that had surfaced in Florida and elsewhere in November 2000. The unspoken premise was that the challenges facing the U.S. election system were primarily technological and that by building better machines - "better vote-traps", if you will - the entire process would show improvement as new technology showed the way to adoption of new best practices in election administration.

We now know (with the benefit of hindsight, of course) that those assumptions were wrong. In fact, I would suggest that since the 2000 election and enactment of HAVA, election administration has changed voting technology more than the other way around.

For example, as states began to spend their HAVA funds, a fierce debate erupted immediately over the security of voting machines, especially the new breed of touchscreens that had essentially been endorsed for state and local purchase by HAVA. For the next several years these arguments raged on, involving election officials, advocates for the disabled, computer scientists and even the political parties. These debates led many jurisdictions to rethink their voting technology decisions, with the result that the majority of the country now uses paper-based optical scan voting rather than touchscreens.

Partly because of this, the voting technology industry - which had (reasonably) expected to ride the federal funds included in HAVA to steady business and profits - was forced into a period of consolidation and restructuring, emerging as a smaller group of companies emphasizing the sale of services instead of products. It didn't help, of course, that Congress never fully funded HAVA; add to that the general scarcity of funding of any kind after a recession and resulting tough fiscal times at every level of government and it's easy to see why voting technology was no longer the sure thing it appeared to be in the wake of HAVA.

It wasn't just budgets that were changing, however. In the years since enactment of HAVA, the field of election administration has evolved in a number of significant ways that has had a ripple effect on voting technology in America.

The first is the growing adoption by election officials (and embrace by voters) of alternatives to the traditional neighborhood polling place. Since enactment of HAVA - and especially in the last 5-6 years - we have seen an explosion in the number of voters who are using absentee ballots, vote-by-mail, early voting and vote centers to cast ballots rather than visiting a local precinct. In 2008, various estimates suggested that as many as one in three voters cast their ballots before Election Day, and those numbers are likely to climb even higher in 2012 and beyond.

Growing adoption of non-precinct-place voting (NPPV) has stretched election administration temporally (i.e. before Election Day) and geographically (outside the neighborhood precinct), but most significantly has added multiple modes of voting to the process in numerous jurisdictions. In this environment, voting machines that assume every voter will be casting an Election Day ballot in a neighborhood polling place risk becoming obsolete. As NPPV expands and ballots begin to arrive from voters at different times and in different forms, election officials are looking for voting technology to help them manage the flow - and give voters the flexibility they crave.

An important corollary to this development is the newest federal voting law, the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act of 2009. MOVE's requirement that military and overseas voters receive ballots well in advance of Election Day - and its encouragement of the use of technology to aid the process - is reviving interest in the notion of Internet voting. Those developments, and the debate they engender, will almost certainly affect the next generation(s) of voting machines.

A second driving force shaping the future of voting technology is the growing desire for votes - and the entire voting process - to be verifiable after Election Day. In this environment, pre-election testing and certification (traditionally the foundation of voting technology laws and procedures at the federal/state level) is not as important as post-election auditing to ensure that votes were counted as cast. As the auditing groundswell grows, however, it is sparking conflicts between transparency advocates and election officials about whether voter privacy can be compromised in an audit. As a result, you can expect lots more discussion in the months and years to come about how to use technology to ensure that voters' choices were honored without revealing those choices.

Finally, the field of voting technology is being shaped by the increasing focus on the voter as the ultimate "customer" of the voting experience. Americans' access to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets - combined with expanding access to on-demand data - is driving business and government providers alike to find ways to make any transaction "user-friendly"; that is, clear and straightforward for the individual as opposed to the provider. In the field of voting, we're seeing this in the spread of online voter registration as well as in the proliferation of lookup tools that harness the power of Internet and social media to help voters get the answers that they need about voting.

This voter-focused approach is driving an intense interest in the concept of design to create voting interfaces (whether on print, on a voting machine or online) that allows a voter to cast her ballot as intended. Indeed, "design thinking" isn't just looking at words and pictures on a page; it's also being used in places like Los Angeles to envision a voting process that works for voters of all languages and abilities. These efforts will require everyone associated with voting technology to rethink just about everything involved with voting technology, from the nuts and bolts of the machines to the laws and regulations that govern the "look and feel" of the election process.

Looking back at the decade-plus since the 2000 presidential election and enactment of HAVA, the relationship between voting technology and election administration is reminiscent of the last line of the 1970 classic Ball Four by former major league pitcher Jim Bouton: "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."

The same idea in the field of elections - namely, that voting technology doesn't affect election administration as much as it is the other way around - is a powerful notion that helps make sense of much of what has occurred in the last 10-12 years. It's also a vivid reminder not to put too much stock in better vote-traps as we look for ways to improve the American election system for the next 10-12 years and beyond.

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