States and counties are leading the way in the never–ending quest to modernize how we vote.
By Katy Owens Hubler
We’ve come a long way since the days of ancient Athens when voters cast “yes” or “no” votes by choosing either a black or a white ball. In the last couple decades, electronic-voting and optical-scanning machines brought American democracy into the digital age. But now most of that aging equipment is starting to break down, leaving election officials and citizens alike wondering, what’s next for voting?
The innovators in the field today are counties and states that are taking a do-it-yourself approach, building their own systems and, perhaps, setting a new direction for elections technology.
Ready for the Next Big Thing
The 2002 Help America Vote Act provided funding for modern voting systems in the wake of the 2000 presidential elections. But “much of that money has been spent,” says Brian Newby, an election commissioner from Johnson County, Kan. “Our office, for instance, received nearly 600 voting machines.” These machines, however, are aging and will soon need to be replaced. Based on the growth anticipated for Johnson County in the coming years, it would cost around $12 million to do so, he says.
Instead of buying more of the same equipment that’s been on the market for years, Newby is considering using commercial off-the-shelf devices such as tablets and iPads. He can even envision voters bringing their own “voting machines”—their smart phones, tablets or laptops—to the polling place.
For many election administrators, the hitch with creating new elections technology is the regulatory system for testing and certifying new machines. “The role for state legislatures in this coming world of new technologies is to empower certification at the state level,” he says. Not having to certify new machines on the federal level could make innovation more cost-effective for vendors. The federal standards are voluntary, but 35 states mandate at least one element of the federal testing and certification program.
If new equipment hasn’t been developed, distributed and given a good run-through, 2020 could be a rocky election year, Newby believes. The idea of rolling out new systems for the first time in a presidential election year is scary; so is using 17-year-old equipment. Election administrators are working hard to find or create the next big election innovation—in time to fully test it in between general elections.
Four such efforts stand out.
Voting Systems Assessment Project
Whose perspective matters most when it comes to elections? The voters. That’s why Los Angeles County Clerk Dean Logan began designing a new voting system with them in mind. Called the Voting Systems Assessment Project, it began in 2009 with focus groups, surveys and assessments to get solid understanding of what voters wanted most.
“Some people prefer to go into a fast-food restaurant and some people prefer to go to the drive-through. Some people like to buy their movie tickets from a kiosk and other people want to stand in line and buy them from a cashier,” says Logan. “Voting should offer the same options.”
The biggest hurdle in developing the new system was California’s statutory language on testing and certification. “The regulatory environment that we operated in both at the state and federal level did not allow for the flexibility to innovate and look for a new voting solution,” says Logan. But last year, the California Legislature enacted a bill allowing California’s Secretary of State’s Office to certify voting systems independently, moving away from the federal standards and old certification process. It also provided funding for innovative pilot projects like the one in Los Angeles.
The county worked with a design firm to create a prototype of a new voting experience that is more accessible, accurate and secure than those currently on the market—a system that would allow people to vote anywhere in the county. What they came up with is a touch-screen machine that allows voters to sign in electronically, mark their ballot and then review or change their selections. The device also has accessibility features such as an audio ballot option and the ability to adjust the size of the text onscreen. Once voters have marked their ballot, the machine prints it and the voter places it in a ballot box. Ballots are then tabulated through a different system.
The LA prototype is being refined further as designers develop a tabulation system and look for better ways to serve remote voters in the state. Logan hopes that once the new system has been completed and thoroughly tested, other elections jurisdictions will be interested in using the technology. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery—and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
When Travis County, Texas, Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir looked at which voting systems to purchase for her jurisdiction, she wasn’t happy with the lack of security features offered so she created her own system.
Dubbed STAR Vote: Security, Transparency, Auditability and Reliability, the aim of this system is to make it is easier for voters to cast their ballot and provide better security to boot. It is an “end-to-end” (or, in elections jargon, E2E) verifiable system, which means that citizens can track their votes all the way through the process. When voters check in they receive a ticket that is used to bring up their specific ballot type on the touch-screen voting machine. They then make their selections, confirm them and then receive a printed copy of their ballot with a tear-off receipt to place in a box that also scans it.
To keep costs low, STAR Vote uses commercial-off-the-shelf hardware and software rather than proprietary software from vendors. This allows counties to own the system themselves, saving them from vendor maintenance fees. According to DeBeauvoir, these cost Travis County a quarter of a million dollars a year.
In addition to Travis County, where Austin is located, 10 counties in Texas are interested in buying into the development of STAR Vote. The design process is now complete, and Travis County will soon be looking for universities or private firms to develop the software for the system.
What if all voters—those with disabilities, those who speak English as a second language, or those who are illiterate—could vote using the same equipment as everyone else? That’s the premise for Juan Gilbert’s work. A professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, Gilbert’s “universal design” concept, Prime III, allows everyone to vote independently and privately, rather than using a separate “accessible” voting machine. Voters can cast their ballot by touch, voice or by puffing into a microphone and verify the ballot on screen before casting it. Prime III then prints the ballot and places it in the ballot box. The system marks ballots precisely and types in write-in candidate names, so there is no ambiguity about what the voter intended.
Gilbert is also working on a system that allows voters to print or download a QR code to a device such as a smart phone or tablet that could then be uploaded to a Prime III voting device. He envisions bumper stickers and campaign materials with QR codes, so if a voter likes a certain candidate, he can scan the QR code from the campaign materials and come to the polling place with a completed ballot, download his choices and review the ballot before casting it. Gilbert’s study shows it’s 20 times faster for a voter to use this system than come to the polling place without it.
Gilbert’s third concept is “televoting” for military personnel. It would look something like this: A military voter tunes in to a video conference with a poll worker at a typical polling place on Election Day. The voter and the poll worker can see and talk to each other, allowing the poll worker to visually authenticate the identity of the voter. When the voter is ready to cast his ballot, he fills it out and submits it over the Internet. The poll worker receives and prints it, and then holds it up to the camera to allow the voter to verify his selections. The ballot is then cast just as if the voter had been in the polling place in person. Opponents are concerned, however, that with this kind of a system, it would be hard to ensure the secrecy of ballots.Maintaining the secrecy of the ballot would be a concern with this type of system, however.
Moving on With Online
Alaska is pioneering a system that allows any registered voter to cast a vote online. The federal Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act (MOVE), passed in 2009, requires all states to provide blank absentee ballots to military personnel and other citizens residing abroad in at least one electronic format–email, fax or an online delivery system. The MOVE Act does not require states to accept these voted ballots electronically, but 31 states and the District of Columbia now accept them via fax or as an email attachment, or have enacted legislation to do so. Alaska is the first state to offer this option to all qualified voters—and permit the return of a voted ballot online.
In order to receive a ballot by electronic transmission, the voter first has to apply. Military and overseas voters can submit an application any time, but stateside civilian voters have to wait until 15 days before an election to apply. Since Alaska is a large state with residents who travel frequently, the system is intended to make it easier for voters to submit their ballot if they unexpectedly aren’t in their voting jurisdiction on Election Day.
After an application is received and verified by election officials, the voter is then sent an automated email message providing a link to a secure site. On the site, the voter enters authentication information (voter ID number, date of birth, driver’s license number or Social Security number) and can then fill out the ballot online or print it out and mail it back. The voter must also sign another document attesting their identity with a witness present, scan it into a PDF and send it back as well.
The Last Frontier?
What else might voting look like in the future? The sky’s the limit.
But if civilian space travel takes off, Texans, at least, should have no concerns. Back in 1997, the forward-thinking Texas Legislature passed a law permitting astronauts to electronically transmit their ballots from space. Astronaut David Wolf did so, and the system has been used a few times since.
Katy Owens Hubler tracks election issues for NCSL.