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Technologists Have Standards: What the Internet Can Teach Us About Making Elections Better

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, December 13 2012

Black Americans were statistically more likely to wait longer to vote in 2012, according to preliminary results released on Monday by the Pew Center on the States' 2012 Survey of the Performance of American Elections. So were the rich, the poor, and people in Florida (who waited on average 50 minutes), Maryland (more than 30 minutes on average), and South Carolina and Virginia (more than 25 minutes). Full results have yet to be published.

These details, revealed and dissected by elections officials and state secretaries of state at a two-day Pew Center on the States event in Washington, D.C. earlier this week, reveal that the experience of voting in America is inconsistent from state to state or even from county to county. Somehow, the votes get from voting machines in each polling place, to county elections officials, to state elections administrators, and comprise the results of state and federal elections — but the people involved in this process say it's sometimes surprising that the American system is as well-regarded as it is. Elections officials in attendance at the Pew event called for reforms to American elections because, as Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan observed, voting in one can be a wildly different experience for people in different counties or even different states.

Technologists might find this situation vaguely familiar. There's another system that asks large numbers of independent actors to all pass interchangeable atomic units of data back and forth in the service of rapid and accurate communication: The Internet.

The United States has 3,007 counties, 16 boroughs in Alaska, 11 census areas in Alaska, 64 parishes in Louisiana, 42 independent cities and the District of Columbia. That doesn't count 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico, two districts in the U.S. Virgin Islands, nine election districts in Guam, 17 districts in the Northern Mariana Islands and five districts in American Samoa. Each of these is responsible for administering elections in accordance with the particular laws of whichever state or territory in which it happens to reside. The states, in turn, have a few basic federal rules by which they abide. But the election infrastructure is unevenly distributed and the experience of voting is very inconsistent.

People in urban areas wait to vote longer than others. Some states have "no-fault" early voting, meaning anyone can cast their ballot ahead of Election Day for no particular reason, and others do not. Some have voter registration deadlines while other states allow residents to register and vote all on the same day. Washington and Oregon are vote-by-mail states, while in states with electronic voting machines, people asked to show up and vote in person waited on average five to seven minutes longer to vote than people in states without those machines. There are those long voting lines in certain states but not others. And while there are basic federal guidelines concerning valid forms of ID to prove a voter's identity, specific rules on voter ID vary, famously, from state to state.

"Lack of uniformity in laws and application of laws [are undermining the elections process]," Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat, said Tuesday during a conversation with another outgoing secretary of state, Sam Reed, Republican of Washington.

Meanwhile, the secretaries of state agreed, members of political parties constantly jockey for an advantage by seeking to influence election law in their favor. From the stage, several secretaries of state — including Ohio's Jon Husted, who was the subject of much controversy and party to eight separate proceedings before the federal courts this year — argued that they were impartial parties just trying to balance ballot access with election integrity.

"My best piece of advice is if you want to find that balance in running a good controversy-free election: Don't become secretary of state in a swing state," Husted told the Pew event on Monday.

"Frankly, it is politics that stands in the way of achieving that balance, not policy," he said later during his remarks.

During questions from the audience, Obama for America's national field director, Jeremy Bird, argued that Husted was less an impartial arbitrator and more a partisan. OfA sued Husted and the State of Ohio this year for moving the deadline for in-person early voting to the Friday before the election rather than on Election Day. OfA won a preliminary injunction in the case and had it upheld in federal appellate court, but the case is still ongoing. Husted says he moved the deadline in response to laws passed by the (Republican-controlled) state legislature, including one that passed with bipartisan consensus. The issue there is that the bipartisan bill, HB 224, was designed to apply technical fixes to a previous bill that set one early-voting deadline for civilian voters and another deadline for military and overseas voters. It was still on the books even though the bill it amended had been repealed. Bird and Husted seemed to agree that top-down attempts to impose elections rules this year resulted in acrimony, chaos, and vigorous working of the refs — they only disagreed on which people were pushing for an unfair advantage.

That American elections working this way yield valid results is, to borrow a word from Carnahan, a "miracle."

The current system doesn't just create headaches for voters, it creates headaches for elections officials, too: Voters can too easily mess up a voter registration form or show up to the wrong polling place. Provisional ballots make more work for poll workers as well as put a voter's franchise at risk. So elections administrators are also looking for a better way.

Here and there people are starting to think up possible solutions. The non-profit start-up TurboVote, for example, just received a $150,000 grant from the Rita Allen Foundation to design a back-end system that officials could use to process voter registrations online. TurboVote allows users to fill out a registration form online, which is then mailed to users to sign and send along to elections officials in a pre-addressed, stamped envelope. They also send text and email reminders prompting users to finish the registration process. The new idea is to develop a mechanism by which this information goes straight into the databases of elections officials. In theory, this saves time, increases the quality of voter registration data, and means the only important thing for the voter to do is send along a copy of his or her signature on the registration form.

"They would keep the data on hold until the signature arrives," said Seth Flaxman, TurboVote's co-founder, in a phone interview.

"Really we're focused on cities and towns," Flaxman said.

The Rita Allen grant is to design the process through which this would work, not design the look and feel of existing software, so all of this still in the concept phase.

But the idea itself is interesting. Flaxman told me that any software they build to create an interface for elections officials would be open-source. The way the information is arranged and structured would also be open-source, free for anyone to pick up, adapt and improve upon. Flaxman hopes that TurboVote, which also received funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation this year, would sustain the effort by providing installation and support to elections officials. But if other counties wanted to build their own systems based on a shared standard way of managing voter data, they would be interoperable. And it is easier for someone in a county bureaucracy to pitch adopting a standard that has been shown to work elsewhere than it is to suggest a change to election law.

This is the same theory that has led major cities around the country to adopt a shared standard, called Open311, for managing non-emergency incident reports. This is a way of working derived from the technology world. It is the way of working that built the Internet: A come-one-come-all process in which anyone who could find their way to the conversation and had the technological knowledge necessary to participate could help decide, and anyone who did not like a standard could opt for a different one instead. Rather than methods decided by fiat, methods are decided by what works for the largest group of people — still problematic, but, one could argue, less so than a top-down decision determined by arguments between the Husteds and Birds of the world.

Asking counties and states to adopt uniform election laws is, if this year is any indication, unrealistic. And it would be facile to suggest that there's a single technology solution for more than 3,100 separate but related problems, each complex and unique. Vote-by-mail has its own problems, and security experts found vulnerabilities in Washington's effort to register voters on Facebook.

But if the problem is one of finding a way for many independent entities to pass the same kinds of information back and forth efficiently, or to create a similar end-user experience for people interacting with many different organizations, then that's a conversation about approaching elections around bottom-up standards instead of top-down laws — and technologists know a thing or two about that.

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