Expanding high-tech voting for '14
By Lucy McCalmont
It may be a while before Americans can tweet their ballot or text their vote, but states are making strides to move elections from the voting booth into the hands — and even mobile devices — of voters.
Across the country, states are gearing up to implement new voter technologies for 2014, as they attempt to advance the ballot-casting experience to catch up with the Facebook generation.
The efforts range from bringing tablets to disabled voters to providing ballots through email and secure online systems to allowing voters to register online.
One of the most significant recent leaps forward came in Pima County, Ariz., where voters for the first time used tablets (the Sony Tap 20 Windows 8), to mark their ballots at polling locations last November.
“The average voter loved them,” said Lori Steele, CEO of Everyone Counts, which partnered with Pima County to provide the tablets and software. “The general population is finding using tablets or PCs, or mobile devices, is far more convenient and easy to do than either vote by mail or voting machines in polling places.”
Brad Nelson, Pima County elections director, noted that the balloting in which tablets were used was for a single yes or no question about redrawing municipal boundaries, but he added that the county intends to expand the use of the devices for future candidate elections.
Steele said Everyone Counts, which has partnerships with Microsoft and Sony, is currently in talks with a number of states about the possibility of providing similar software to allow voters to use tablets instead of machines. She declined to go into specifics, citing ongoing discussions.
Oregon, one of the states that has been on the cutting edge of voter technology, is also expanding its efforts. In 2014, the state will incorporate Windows 8 tablets in addition to iPads — which they first provided to disabled voters in 2011 — for more accessibility, officials said.
Although voters in places like Oregon and Pima County are using tablets, it’s not considered “online voting,” because the ballot is still printed out on paper to be counted just like those cast in machines. Online voting would mean the ballot is cast and counted solely online without a physical ballot ever being recorded. No state has yet gone as far as full online voting.
To date, 15 states that have put in place online voter registration, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Five more states passed legislation allowing online registration, which Pew expects to be implemented in time for the 2014 midterms.
Wendy Underhill, program manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said she expects that by 2020 all states will allow online voter registration.
But when it comes to voting technology, the most important — and contentious issue — is whether to allow the delivery and return of ballots to and from voters electronically, either by fax or email or on a secure website.
According to NCSL, which is holding a panel on the Future of Elections at its annual meeting in D.C. this week, 32 states allow uniformed military service members and overseas citizens to return ballots electronically. The effort has been driven by the 2009 passage of the federal Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act, which requires states to have at least one electronic format to provide blank absentee ballots.
Alaska is currently the only state that allows all voters, not just those in the military or overseas, to return ballots electronically, and is the only state that has an online system to do so.
Here’s how it works:
Voters who opt to have a ballot delivered to them electronically are notified by email when their ballot is available on a secure website. They access the site using personal information such as a voter ID number or Social Security number. Voters can then mark their ballot online to print and mail it in, or they can save it to the system where it can be retrieved by the state’s election division.
Alaska election officials said the system is working glitch-free.
Connecticut, meanwhile, is one of two states that passed legislation last year to move forward with electronic ballot delivery and return. Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said the state has begun meeting with vendors as it prepares to put a system in place for next year.
Steele acknowledged that sending and returning ballots by email and fax isn’t secure, but she said a password-protected website like that used in Alaska “can provide the highest level of security of any voting system at all.”
Everyone Counts is working with Utah to implement an online system that is expected to be ready for the 2014 elections and is in talks with four other states, Steele said.
Additionally, a growing number of states are using electronic poll books, which keep track of voters as they check in to polling places to cast their ballots. Many states are putting these registration databases on tablets for immediate updates.
Some groups are also using technology to provide more election information to voters.
Pew Charitable Trusts is working to expand on its Civic Information Tool, which, with Google, provides information including polling locations, state-level candidate information, and more down-ballot information that voters can access online or on their smartphones. More states also are ramping up their social media presence by launching Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Some experts say that entire process needs to be approached “holistically” to make voting as easy as shopping on Amazon.
“People should actually be able to go and have a seamless experience that goes from registration, which is really their membership account for democracy, to the polling place, which is really the store for democracy,” said Art Chang, of the New York City Campaign Finance Board. “And so when you look at it that way, there’s huge, huge areas of improvement that need to happen.”