Election officials are going high-tech for the 2012 election season — from iPads to online voting to a social media blitz like never before
Mackenzie Weinger - Politico
November 30, 2011
Ahead of Nov. 6, states are making innovative changes to make it easier to cast ballots and get information about where, when, and how to vote. On tap for next year: secretaries of state offices are set to carve out a larger presence on Facebook and Twitter, roll out pilot programs offering voters the chance to do everything from marking their ballot on a tablet to finding a polling place on a smartphone app, and allow expanded online voting for some in the military or living overseas.
In Oregon, where disabled residents used iPads to cast ballots during a pilot test for the special election earlier this month, officials say they are ready to deploy the tablets again in January. And the state’s step forward could very well spark a trend: the secretary of state’s office told POLITICO that Washington state, Idaho, California, West Virginia and Johnson County, Kansas have all contacted Oregon about the use of the iPads for voting.
There are also new programs on tap for the back end — in Long Beach, Calif., for example, officials will track the city’s polls and their contents with radio frequency identification chips, a kind of high-tech barcode. Throughout election night, the location of the polls and whether the results there have been reported will light up on a bingo-type board and show if the ballot boxes are securely in transit or scanned and at the dropbox center, City of Long Beach clerk Larry Herrera said.
And in Connecticut, where election officials must contend with a stringent post-election audit, high-speed scanners — at about $100,000 a piece — will likely be used in 2012 and allow the state to read and count 10,000 ballots every fifteen minutes. The new scanners would mean a big change for the state, where officials have previously had to do the tally by hand, town by town, Secretary of State Denise Merrill said.
But for most voters around the country, they’ll encounter the newest innovations in the voting world before even heading to the polls in 2012.
There are 11 states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington — that currently or will shortly offer online voter registration, said Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Technology Project director Lawrence Norden and U.S. Election Assistance Commission spokesperson Jeannie Layson. North Carolina is considering implementing it as well. In 2010, eight states provided the service to all their voters. The option is slowly picking up steam, as election officials say it will cut down on problems with handwriting and last-minute registrations that miss the mail-in deadline.
And even more states are turning to the Internet to bombard potential voters with information on Facebook, smartphone apps and Twitter. By joining up on social media sites — 21 secretaries of state offices have Facebook pages and close to 30 are now on Twitter — officials say they’re hoping to spread the word on important dates and deadlines, and maybe even give voting that elusive cool factor that could help increase participation.
In Washington — where the elections office has long partnered with Microsoft, whose headquarters is located in the state — Facebook is also joining in to boost the state’s already high-tech elections operation. Next year, users will likely be able to access Washington state’s online voter registration tool through a tab on the popular social networking site.
“Facebook is looking for a way to link in or tie in our online voter registration service with Facebook and use the advantages Facebook offers to get the social aspect of registering to vote and telling friends they registered to vote online,” Washington co-director of elections Shane Hamlin told POLITICO. “Microsoft is doing the tech work of developing the connection between our online registration tool and Facebook.”
For Seminole County, Florida’s supervisor of elections Mike Ertel said Facebook offers a new way to target voters and get information out. This election season, he’ll be designing his own Facebook ads to reach residents living in the right geographic area and those that update their status with key words that could likely mean they are qualified voters for the county.
“It’s target marketing on steroids,” Ertel said.
And 35 states have partnered with Pew Center on the States to use the tools the center and its partners are building and developing to pump up voter technology for 2012. The three main tools Pew is rolling out next year are an app to help military and overseas voters fill out their Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot, a multilingual polling place locator, and an expansion of their existing smartphone app to make it available on more platforms. The app currently offers information on how to register to vote and where to find polling places, but it doesn't account for all of the states signed on to the project or work on any other platform but the iPhone.
Pew Center on the States’ senior associate Matthew Morse said the center has one major goal in particular with its updated app — they plan to “make it a one stop shop for voting” in 2012 with links to states’ online registration portals and other information people will need to know how to get to the polls and vote. They’re planning to expand the app’s functionality to work with other platforms and add in all the details from the new states that recently joined Pew.
On the new write-in ballot tool, overseas voters will receive a PDF with a drop-down menu pre-populating their ballot with all the available candidates and offices. This new process, Pew’s director of election initiatives David Becker said, will likely benefit voters who might have limited access to information on all the candidates, as well as those with bad handwriting.
“And with the redistricting, it’s going to be particularly difficult for people, especially those overseas, to know who their congressperson is, what district they’re in,” Becker told POLITICO. “This tool could be particularly useful in enfranchising them in the 2012 election.”
While online voter registration looks set to be the next big thing in elections, casting a ballot on the Internet is an idea still rife with controversy. West Virginia and Washington state have so far taken the biggest leaps forward in online voting. West Virginia ran a pilot program in 2010 allowing some military and overseas voters to test out returning ballots online and Washington is set to permit its roughly 52,000 voters abroad to do so in 2012.
“We got through the legislature in this last session a bill that would allow us to not only email ballots — which we have been doing since the 90s — but also allow military and overseas citizens to return their ballots by email, just in individual contact between them and their county office,” Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed said. “We’re enthused about it, as we have a large military population in the state.”
As more states work to comply with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act of 2009 — a law that attempts to make voting easier and quicker by sending blank ballots overseas electronically — election experts say voters in the future may confront a very different voting experience than popping into a poll booth. “It’s kind of the wild west out there,” elections expert and MIT professor Charles Stewart said.
Online voting won’t be available to most citizens anytime soon, experts told POLITICO, citing concerns with security, hacking and other technology risks. Election watchers particularly cite the 2010 internet-based voting test in Washington, D.C., as a major impediment to making the jump in the near future: the system was completely hacked within 36 hours and officials promptly scrapped the whole program.
“Going to electronic voting over the Internet is an inherently risky proposition,” Alexander Shvartsman of the University of Connecticut Center for Voting Technology Research added. “I would not recommend that for any political election where the outcome is important.”
While that technology may not be ready just yet for its big debut, states and businesses are already delving into its other prospects as the next frontier in voting innovation. Lori Steele of Everyone Counts, the company behind both West Virginia’s online pilot project and Oregon’s iPad voting technology, said she’s confident that in 2013 and beyond there will be a dramatic adoption of software-based voting.
“The states trying to provide secure and accessible electronic ballots will be using systems such as ours,” Steele said. “We would never suggest electronic mail because email’s not really secure. Depending on the jurisdiction, you would either print it and mail it back or email it or fax it back, depending on the law. Or, in the cases of those who were looking for most secure way, submit it through our electronic ballot return system that would encrypt the ballot and keep it secure until it was ready to be downloaded and counted.”
For West Virginia’s Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, the push for online voting for military service members is personal.
Among those who could be voting abroad in the future is Tennant’s husband, state Sen. Erik Wells, who is currently on active duty in Afghanistan with the Navy.