Compilation of election returns and validation of the outcome that forms the basis of the official results by a political subdivision.
“What makes you lose sleep?” That’s what NCSL staff asked members of the National Association of State Election Directors back in September 2012. The answer wasn’t voter ID, or early voting, or turnout, as we expected. Instead, it was this: “Our equipment is aging, and we aren’t sure we’ll have workable equipment for our citizens to vote on beyond 2016.”
That was NCSL’s wake-up call to get busy and learn how elections and technology work together. We’ve spent much of the last two years focusing on that through the Elections Technology Project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. One thing we learned is that virtually all election policy choices have a technology component. Just two examples: vote centers and all-mail elections. While both can be debated based on such values as their effect on voters, election officials and budgets, neither can be decided without considering technology. Vote centers rely on e-poll books, and all-mail elections depend on optical scan equipment to handle volumes of paper ballots.
Below are nine more takeaways we’ve learned recently and that legislators might like to know too.
Most of the equipment in use around the nation was bought with federal money made available through the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). That was before smartphones were invented, and even iPods were new technology. And a significant portion of the country uses equipment that was bought well before that.
With aging equipment, jurisdictions are spending more money on maintenance. Cannibalizing some machines to keep others going is commonplace. At some point, equipment will need to be replaced.
HAVA funds are mostly gone now, and there is no sign of additional federal money as far as the eye can see.
Who will pay for new equipment, since the feds will not? The choices are few: local jurisdictions, the state, or a combination. In most states, the costs are borne by counties, and in a few, such as Georgia, the state takes the lead. In others, a variety of state-level funding mechanisms exist to ease the burden on local jurisdictions.
Each state, and sometimes each jurisdiction, makes its own decision on what election equipment to use. While a few small jurisdictions count all ballots by hand, in general the options for new equipment continue to be variations on either “paper or electronic.” In other words, paper ballots that are counted through optical scan equipment or direct-recording electronic equipment (DREs) that may look a bit like an ATM. While those who use DREs love them, most recent equipment choices have tended toward the paper and optical scan side.
Map courtesy of verifiedvoting.org. DRE: direct-recording electronic equipment; VVPAT: verified voting paper audit trail.
States, not the feds, set requirements for voting equipment. State statute or administrative code often rely on federal voluntary guidelines, but it doesn’t have to be that way—and many states modify the federal guidelines to meet their own needs.
The current federal voluntary guidelines were just updated in March by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), but that update meant adopting guidelines that were written in 2007 and have sat on the shelf since then. Work goes on at the EAC to create more flexible and forward-leaning guidelines.
One key goal is to have standards that are technology-neutral and thus can be used to test either optical scan equipment, DREs or new equipment that hasn’t been invented yet.
When HAVA was enacted, it focused on the equipment on which a vote was cast and counted—the actual voting system. Now, technology for peripherals is just as important. Here are two that legislators are paying attention to now:
Technology isn’t just for objects we can hold and touch anymore and instead is often about behind-the-scenes programming. Examples: online voter registration, electronic transmission of voter registration applications from motor vehicle agencies to election officials, and statewide voter registration databases. HAVA mandated and helped pay for the statewide databases, and now, a dozen years later, many states are facing upgrading or replacing these systems.
Whenever election-related technology is under discussion, legislators can ask, “Is it secure?” There are issues of physical security—for example, cameras at the warehouses that store the equipment and, seals on equipment. Then there is procedural security—for example, chain-of-custody procedures for voted ballots and “reconciliation,” the process at the end of Election Day that ensures no votes were lost. And of course, electronic tampering, which we all think of as hacking.
The scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology are on record saying that Internet voting cannot be done in a secure fashion yet. Ditto for the folks at Verified Voting.org. Even the paper, Online Voting: Rewards and Risks, from the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, says, “But for online voting in all its forms to take off, security will need to be vastly improved.”
It is harder to create a secure system for voting online than for banking online—a common comparison—for a couple of reasons. First, banking transactions must be traceable back to the person. Election integrity, on the other hand, means ballots are separated from the voter’s information precisely so they cannot be traced back to the voter. That makes it hard to detect fraudulent activity. And in banking, there’s a built-in acceptable loss. Not so with voting—every vote must count.
While retail election fraud has existed since before the days of Tammany Hall, any connectivity in a voting system can introduce an avenue for wholesale mischief.
A desire to reduce costs is just one pressure moving us toward more reliance on the Internet in elections. Equally important is that voters see virtually all their other life transactions moving to the Internet, and they wonder why they can’t vote on their phone (see No. 8).
Beyond cost issues, the needs of military and overseas voters may drive legislators to push innovators to figure out how to do Internet-assisted voting securely. People with disabilities and even first responders also may be in situations where casting a vote electronically may seem like the only option.
In 31 states, some voters—mostly those living overseas—can return their ballots electronically, usually as a PDF attached to an email. Legislators have to weigh the security of email attachments against the possible disenfranchisement of those who would not be able to vote otherwise.
While NCSL was finalizing its list of “things to know,” Merle King, executive director of the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University in Georgia was working on another brand-new list with a similar goal. His list focuses on what to look for when choosing a voting system. Interestingly, there are no points of disagreement between our list and his and no overlap.
1. A voting system is the core technology that drives and integrates the system—and it is the part the voter touches.
2. Know who does what and why. Without clearly defined roles and responsibilities, problems will occur.
3. The true cost of ownership is the cost to purchase, operate and maintain a voting system over its life span. It is more than you think.
4. The request for proposal (RFP) is your first, last and best chance to get the system requirements right. Systems are never better than the RFPs used to define the requirements.
5. Changing a voting system is like changing tires on the bus … without stopping. A transition plan may allow the seamless migration from the old system to the new system, with minimum disruption.
6. Training and education may cost more than the purchase price of the system when you factor in voter education, poll workers, election officials, etc.
7. How long will new systems last? What shortens their lives? What needs to be done before purchase to ensure long life?
8. All modern voting systems are “multimodal,” meaning they will have to function for vote-by-mail ballots, in-person voting, online ballot return, etc. That means flexibility in the architecture is required to avoid retrofitting later.
9. Either you manage vendors or they manage you. Pick.
10. Know the “known unknowns,” such as security, accessibility, auditability, usability, voter convenience, transparency of process and testing and certification requirements.
Six of the nine vetoes so far this year for election-related legislation come from Virginia. This may reflect that a Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, is in the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers are held by Republicans.
HB 1473 would have allowed local election officials (called “general registrars” in Virginia) to hail from neighboring jurisdictions.
SB 1066 and HB 1296 dealt with filling vacancies. The governor’s statement says the veto stems from a conflict with existing statutes.
SB 1350 would have allowed the state to remove voters from registration rolls when the local registrar receives notice that the voter has moved from the Commonwealth. The governor says the bill was in conflict with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
HB 1315 would have required that information about citizenship status and more be transmitted from jury commissioners to local
registrars, to be used for voter list maintenance.
HB 1318 would have required voters applying to receive an absentee ballot to submit a copy of accepted identification.
The Pew Charitable Trusts new report, "Online Voter Registration: Trends in Development and Implementation," came out just days ago. It’s a must-read for any Canvass subscriber.
(Editor’s note: Florida joined the group when Governor Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 228 into law on May 15. This action is not included on the above graphic.)
Representative Su Ryden serves as the chair of the Colorado House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over elections. She represents House District 36, which encompasses east Aurora and several neighborhoods in unincorporated Arapahoe County. The Canvass spoke with her on May 14.
Read the full interview with Ryden.
Luanne Cutler is the registrar of voters for Washoe County in western Nevada. It’s the second largest county in the state with a population of 410,000 and home to the city of Reno. The Canvass spoke with her on May 14.
Read the full interview with Cutler.
Now’s your last chance to register for NCSL’s Policy and Elections Technology: A Legislative Perspective conference, happening June 3-5 in Santa Fe. Join more than 50 legislators in learning about upcoming challenges in elections and experiencing the art of beautiful Santa Fe. We hope to see you there.
Dan Diorio recently joined NCSL’s elections team as a policy specialist. Dan is new to the Rocky Mountains having recently moved from Washington, D.C. He’s enjoying the drier air and spends his spare time renovating his house or resisting the urge to add another guitar to his collection. Please welcome Dan!
Thanks for reading, and please stay in touch.
—Wendy Underhill and Dan Diorio
The Canvass, an Elections Newsletter for Legislatures © 2015 | Published by the National Conference of State Legislatures | William T. Pound, Executive Director
In conjunction with NCSL, funding support for The Canvass is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Election Initiatives project. Any opinions, findings or conclusions in this publication are those of NCSL and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Links provided do not indicate NCSL or The Pew Charitable Trusts endorsement of these sites.
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