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For Presidential Election Commission, Long Lines at Polls Are a Technology and Data Problem

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, January 29 2014

Election Resource Calculator

In his State of the Union speech last night, President Obama praised the work of his bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, emphasizing that it "has offered reforms so that no one has to wait more than a half hour to vote." On Election Night 2012, noting that many had "waited in line for a very long time," he emphasized "we have to fix that."

With its report published last week, the commission outlines how the widespread ground-level adoption of new innovative election technology is directly tied to shorter lines at the polls. In its report, the commission not only calls for the implementation of online voter registration, better voter and election data, but also rethinking the procurement of voter machines and the use of Election Day resource calculators and electronic poll books. The committee members also emphasized that it will be up to the public to make their desire for a 21st century voting experience clear to elected officials and election administrators.

Voting Machines

Last Wednesday, the Commission members discussed their report at a panel at George Washington University that was broadcast on C-SPAN. "[A subject] on which the commission felt the need to shine a really bright spotlight is the state of voting technology in this country," said Benjamin Ginsberg, co-chair of the commission and a former counsel to the Romney campaign. "The reality is that virtually all the machines in the country were purchased in 2003 with Help America Vote Act money as a result of the Florida recount. Those machines are about to wear out ... Part of the voting technology crisis is that we didn't meet a single state or local elections' administration who said God, I love my voting machines, I only wish we could keep them forever. In fact we didn't run into a state or local administrator who liked his or her voting machines and thought they were good." The report emphasizes that due to political dysfunction in connection with the Election Assistance Commission, there has been no update to the standard-setting and certification process for voting machines. "They're using standards set in 2005 and 2007. That was before there were iPads," Ginsberg said. The report recommends changes to the certification process at the state or federal level.

Nathaniel Persily, senior research director for the commission, said he had previously not appreciated the extent of the "voting technology crisis," adding that conversations with election administrators indicated that "there is a real risk of massive simultaneous breakdown." The commission recommends that a new standard setting authority help bring about a shift from "complex, single-use, end-to-end systems" to "commercial off-the-shelf technology" with components such as laptops, tablets, and machine readable scanners that are more easily replaceable. "So long as you have a voter verified paper trail, there's no reason you can't vote on the same type of technology that you use for everything else in your lives," Persily said.

Election Data

Better election data and the lack thereof was also a big focus of the report. "One thing that we saw across the political spectrum is that people on the left and the right believe that there should be accurate voter registration lists," Ginsberg said. " If you have clean lists, lines at polling places are less likely to occur." Previously, Ginsberg said he had not appreciated "the lack of uniform data collection about elections ... You would assume you could just figure out in sort of a uniform way all the various datapoints you needed about casting and counting ballots, that's not true at all ... It's in a really disorganized state."

The report notes that "despite the fact that elections drown in data, and political campaigns have transformed American politics by gathering and analyzing data about their supporters, election administration has largely escaped this data revolution." The report recommends that election officials see every interaction with a voter from registering, to requesting an absentee ballot, checking in at a polling place and casting a ballot as an opportunity to gather better "auxiliary data associated with elections." The failure of some counties and states to report basic election data "naturally raises the question about compliance with federal voting laws -- without the required data, how is anyone to know?"

As a positive example, the report points to Wisconsin, which despite being the "most decentralized election administration system" also has "thorough election data-gathering programs." The report further recommends that election vendors add data report functionalities to voting machines, that states and localities partner with colleges and universities that have data analytics programs and that jurisdictions should do a better job publishing the data they already collect in standardized formats to members of the public.

To improve the consistency of voter registration data, the commission recommends that states join interstate exchanges that can use data-matching tools to improve the accuracy of the voter rolls, such as the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program run by the Kansas Security of State, which 29 states have joined, or the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC).

The Pew Charitable Trusts helped start that program, which the participating states now run independently as a nonprofit, and Pew testified before and shared its research on that and other subjects with the commission. David Becker, director of Election Initiatives at Pew, explained to techPresident that the program allows states to share their voting records data in a data center where data matching software can analyze and compare the voting and DMV records to determine whether a voter has moved. Washington D.C. this year joined the other participating states: Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Utah, Virginia, and Washington. Becker noted that a 2012 Research Triangle study found that "ERIC states outperformed non-ERIC states on every single measure." He added that Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona and Connecticut have already passed legislation authorizing participation in ERIC, with bills pending or in the works in California and other states.

Election Calculators

But the commission also sees a role for technology in determining the logistics of Election Day. In addition to showcasing open-source voter registration tools used by groups like Rock the Vote, the committee is also calling special attention to so-called election resource calculators and is strongly recommending their use, all of which are hosted by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. The tools, which the commission hopes will be further improved, include a Line Optimization tool developed by Mark Pelczarski and a Poll Worker and Machine Optimization Tool developed by Aaron Strauss.

"One of my former clerks in Kentucky came to our hearing where we talked about these election calculators and he was ecstatic to have this tool," said Trey Grayson, a member of the committee, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School and a former Kentucky Secretary of State. " He came up to me afterwards, and said, 'this is great I'm going to use this in my next election," Grayson recalled. "It would be hard to mandate the use of these tools but, but it's not hard to train. It's important for voters to know that these tools are out there readily available and accessible, and if they're not being used in your county, to raise a stink."

Strauss, a self-described "elections geek" who co-founded the Voting Information Project, told techPresident that he had the idea to develop his tool after he had attended a meeting of the PCEA commission and heard that its focus would not be new federal legislation, and so he began thinking about ways to improve the process without legislation. The Javascript tool draws on "simple algebra," recent average presidential elections data at the state level and New York City Board of Elections research on polling technology to calculate the number of scan machines and check-in poll books to use based on the number of voters in a district. Strauss, now a freelance data consultant, also looked at the timed Foursquare Election Day polling place check in-data to calculate the "difference between peak demand before and after work, and average demand through the day."

"I think this is a really good way for election officials to double-check [their estimates] by taking their initial allotment of poll workers and voting machines in each of their precincts through the calculators and seeing if there are any trouble spots," he said, noting reports that poll workers in Virginia had been caught off guard by how many voters had moved in certain precincts.

Strauss said more study was needed on the impact of vote times, differences in voting technology, precinct urbanity and mobility and how to incorporate wait time data collected through services such as Foursquare. But he said he disagreed with the commission that election officials should be the ones to monitor wait times on Election Day, as he also wrote in a blog post. Given all the burdens on election officials, he said, it would be more helpful to conduct more national studies on those issues in order to increase trust in and use of the tools. "I think the next step is for us to talk to election officials and make sure that these calculators make sense to them, make sure it's intuitive to use and the data coming back correlates with what they see on the ground and ... make the data behind them more accurate."

Help with that task could come from efforts like ELECTricity, a project from the New Organizing Institute dedicated to offering training and guidance to election officials with a focus on technology, data knowledge and public relations skills. Since its launch at the annual conference of the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers last July, the group has reached around 100 election officials across the country, Whitney May, election administration government liaison and herself a former election administrator in North Carolina, told techPresident. As part of its on-site visits the project has published educational slides for election officials on topics such as a Twitter use, including basic account creation and sample tweets for an election office, and Excel skills. Training for the calculators will likely be next, she said, so "we can see how these calculators can help administrators with their work, break down the different inputs you need to successfully use the calculators ... and how you might use that information actually in practice and create a space for feedback on those tools."

A 21st Century Polling Place

The commission also sees other opportunities for technology changing the Election Day process, in addition to the use of electronic poll books. "One of the things that's very exciting and that experts in the field of usability and accessibility and computer experts have been working on for the last couple of years is shifting where the ballot gets actually marked," said Tammy Patrick, a member of the commission and a Federal Compliance Officer for the Maricopa County Elections Department in Arizona. She described a future where a voter would be able to download a ballot on a smart device and mark it, and then save the selections as a QR code. At the polling place, the voter could scan the QR code, and verify the choices so the process is compliant with the Help America Vote Act, and then print it out and have it scanned, cutting the time voters spend in the polling place, she said. "It would across the board shift some of the voting but not the casting of the ballot from the polling place," she said.

Online Voter Registration

But usability can also be an opportunity and challenge for other aspects of the commission's recommendations, such as online voter registration, among the suggestions that receive the commission's strongest endorsement. In its report, the commission emphasizes the potential of online voter registration to reduce errors in the voter rolls, save money and give instant feedback on voters' registration status. A recent Pew Report notes that the average cost of implementation of such systems is $240,000, and indicated that even the most expensive system in California, where implementation cost $1.8 million, the savings, in that instance $2.5 million, more than outweighed the cost. However according to Paul Schreiber, a software engineer who was formerly CTO of TurboVote, the California example demonstrates some of the hurdles that have to be overcome to make online voter registration user-friendly and accessible.

Ahead of the 2012 election, he said, TuboVote explored ways of linking its system to online voter registration systems already in place. While most Turbovote users needed to mail in printed registration forms, the idea was that voters in the states with online voter registration would be able to complete their registration entirely online. "Generally [the online registration systems] were not well done, they were not well designed and they were difficult to use," especially in how the sites caused difficulties for users who did not enter data such as phone numbers in the specific format required, Schreiber told techPresident. "California's was a lot of steps in the process, slow to use and depending on how a question was answered, the page would reload." The system did not use a standard Captcha tool, he said, and was built using a Microsoft's technology, which he said is generally more challenging to work with. There were also inconsistencies between what the guidelines said was required information and what the system allowed users to enter, "so the bureaucracy was saying one set of rules and the program was saying a different set of rules."

The expense of the system was surprising, he said, "because per dollar spent they received less value than other states," but he noted that the phenomenon echoed some of the general government procurement concerns that became evident with the health care website's growing pains. With almost every state building its own system, "there's so much waste and duplication because you end up with 50 of these," he said.

The California system also exemplified the pitfalls of releasing a system right before Election Day, without the opportunity for testing and iteration as is done at Amazon or Facebook, he said. While some software projects are complicated, "filling out a form is not one of them ... It feels like these things get built and left out there, 'We're done and we're not going to touch this anymore.'" Schreiber noted that working with outside contractors could complicate the process when they aren't accessible on site to address issues. For that reason, he said it was important for state officials to make a concerted effort to work with a talented outside firm, put an emphasis on usability and cooperate with other states. "Having three really good systems is better than 47 or 50 iffy ones," he said.

But a more long-term solution could lie within state governments, he said, pointing to the example of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's widely-praised web platform. "They built a really strong in-house team and their website is really great, it's not just that it looks good, but you can actually do really good things with it and they make all their data available," he said. "Maybe the answer [for state governments] is we're not just going to build this project but all kinds of projects like this and pay properly to attract good folks ... instead of paying some firm a couple of million dollars in consulting fees."

In an e-mail to techPresident, Nicole Winger, deputy California Secretary of State for Communications, emphasized that the California system, launched in September 2012, had to connect the Secretary of State's office, Department of Motor Vehicles and the 58 county election management systems, so that voters with DMV signatures on file could register online, while in other states such as Arizona the Secretary of State also oversees DMV records. She explained that the cost for the system included the development costs of the California Secretary of State, the California Department of Motor Vehicles, and the county election management system vendors, which are DIMS, DFM, and Votec, with full funding coming from federal grant money.

"Secretary of State Debra Bowen chose the least expensive and most expeditious approach to creating an online voter registration application ... The primary challenges were (1) time constraints, (2) securing funding, and (3) coordination between two state government agencies and 58 local government agencies," Winger wrote, adding that the development of the entire system and its web interfaces took nine months. Work on the project involved a combination of in-house developers and contractors in the Secretary of State's office and the DMV and the election management system vendors for the counties, she explained. She said the Secretary of State's team is working on adding features for the 2014 elections including additional languages, improved data standardization, a "post" feature that would allow outside groups with a written agreement with the SOS to pre-fill portions of the registration form, and making the web platform mobile-responsive.

In its report, the commission notes that the open-source code from the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation (OSDV) as part of its Trust the Vote initiative, which is used by Rock the Vote and Virginia, "highlights the way that voter information can be entered by a user in one setting and, through a simple platform, seamlessly integrated with a state's registration list .... Online registration, therefore, not only facilitates state agencies' efforts to register voters, but it enables outside groups [with state authorization] to empower users of their websites to register directly into the state's system." Gregory Miller, Chief Development Officer for the OSDV, wrote in an e-mail to techPresident that work has already begun on a second version of the Virginia website, adding that Vermont and other states were considering the system. "I can tell you that we are receiving inquiries almost daily."

During the panel discussion, the commission members not only highlighted their recommendations to improve local election information geared to overseas and military voters, which cites research from the Overseas Vote Foundation, but noted that improved election website usability also benefits domestic voters, as outlined in a field guide published by usability expert Dana Chisnell.

The Youth Vote

Grayson and other members of the commission emphasized that their recommendations could help address the youth voting rate in many respects. "I think the general modernization of our election system will go a long way to helping out young voters and also to reconcile the statistics," he said, noting research suggesting one reason the youth vote appears low "is because the data is so bad. That they actually don't vote that much less than any other populations ... they're registered to vote but they aren't really there, they're somewhere else." The recommendations, he said, would improve the process for a "very mobile population that uses technology."

The Road Ahead

The members of the commission and advocates like Becker from the Pew Charitable Trusts expressed hope that bipartisan momentum regarding the importance and effectiveness of the recommended policies would spur adoption through the power of example and legislative efforts. Commission members said they intended to act as ambassadors for their recommendations and testify on the state and federal level.

"Nothing in the report is brand new or needs to be invented," Becker emphasized. "These are all reforms that have been implemented in several states, and now states can just look to the research which the commission has helped publicize and work to improve their own systems and this will drive a conversation in the states...." Noting the states that had pioneered online voter registration and participation in ERIC, he emphasized that "there are many excellent elections officials in many states who have actually not waited for that conversation to get started, they've been actively looking for solutions all along which is what the commission was able to draw from."

Based on Pew's experience working with state legislatures to implement reforms, Becker said he did not anticipate much of a challenge from partisan politics.

"If you look at online voter registration, Arizona under a Republican Secretary of State was the first state to implement it, Washington was the second under a Republican Secretary of State, and now you've got states as diverse as Oregon and Maryland on the one hand and Kansas and Louisiana on the other hand participating in online voter registration," he said. "Similarly with ERIC, you've got states as red as Utah and as blue as Maryland participating in that effort as well. I think the obstacles are not largely political, I think they're largely fiscal ... In South Carolina, there's not a lot of bipartisanship in the state legislature at times and yet the bill authorizing their participation in ERIC and online voter registration passed unanimously in both houses of the legislature and was signed by Governor Haley."

He said it was important to document the cost savings and other benefits so that legislators "can know that if they invest some money in online registration or participation in ERIC, that they are going to see that money come back several times over." In addition, he added that it was also key to offer plenty of opportunity to address questions about security and privacy. He said Pew would also continue to work to move that conversation forward with the release of its 2012 Elections Performance Index this spring, which, he added, also fits with the commission's call for better elections data.

Bipartisan Support

The bipartisan nature of the commission's recommendations seems to be echoed in initial reactions from both sides of the political spectrum. Both the NAACP and Demos welcomed the report in statements. "That they talk about online registration or integrating databases does make a lot of sense and [those proposals] will probably not only help increase turnout but also save money," Mijin Cha, senior Policy Analyst at Demos, said in a brief interview. In its statement Demos says it will soon release its own report on how to make improvements to the voting process.

True the Vote, a conservative leaning group that prompted some headlines in 2012 with what it saw as a grassroots effort to root out voter fraud, posted links on Facebook to reactions from the anti-voter fraud Election Law Center blog and commented: "TRUE the VOTE has worked for these smart voting practices for years -- glad the Presidential Election Commission is on board," noting the database exchange proposal would help "create the most accurate lists possible, protect against fraud." The group also quotes a blog post stating that the commission "finds no evidence of racial animus, discrimination, or any other nefarious purpose in the long lines on Election Day 2012. Instead, in the counties where lines were an issue, [they] were caused by logistic or technology failures and lack of planning or resources."

Some participants in the panel discussion at GWU expressed concern that the focus of the commission was too limited by not addressing hot-button issues like voter I.D. laws. But Persily cautioned about underestimating the potential impact of the committee's recommendations. "[It's important] not to assume that the most controversial issues are the most consequential. These recommendations if implemented will affect tens of millions," he said. "The registration system, if you can crack that code, it will have downstream payoffs throughout the electoral system ... getting more information, data about what is actually happening at the polling places, can have huge payoffs so we can get a real accurate picture of the types of problems going forward that we can address."

The recommendations and related issues will also be a subject of the Overseas Vote Foundation and Vote Foundation's Voting and Election and Elections summit on Thursday.