Tomorrow is Election Day 2012, and with many people experiencing pre-election angst, perhaps now is not the time to start telling our patient readers what the heck we’ve been doing in technology land for the last several months. Right now, we’re in a bit of a breather, as election officials and other partners have been focusing solely on the final slog to election day, and readying for a couple intense weeks of work post-election. So instead, I’ll be focusing on sharing with you a technology spin on current election news, and get around to our own accomplishments a little later.

The news of the moment I want to share is this:  there is a good chance that Ohio’s state and federal election results won’t be available on Election Night or even the next day, and root of the problem is technology. To continue the tree analogy, the trunk is process, the branches are people, the leaves are provisional ballots, and the possible storm blowing through the tree is litigation about the ballots. The technology root is balky; the trunk process of finding absentee voters is tricky; election officials didn’t do the process correctly; thousands of absentee voters will instead vote provisionally; the delay in counting those ballots can create the opportunity for a storm.

As a result, there is Florida-2000-style election meltdown looming in Ohio. Due to problems with Ohio’s voter records database, perhaps as many as 100,000 Ohioans will vote on provisional ballots, a huge number when you consider that every one of them requires human decisions about whether to count it. And those decisions must be monitored and recorded, because if the decision is “yes” then it is irrevocable. Once a provisional ballot is separated from the voter’s affidavit (explaining why they are entitled to vote even if the poll worker didn’t think so) and counted, then you can’t un-count it. Likewise, the “no” decisions lead to a pile of uncounted ballots, which can be the focus of litigation.

“How does a voter records system lead to this?” you might well ask, thinking of a voter registration system that mainly handles new voter registration (creating a new voter record), and updates or re-registration (e.g. changing the address in an existing voter record). Technology glitches could disenfranchise a voter, but create an election integrity meltdown? Yes – and that’s because we’re not talking about a voter registration system or database, but rather a voter records system that local election officials use for many purposes. And in this case, it’s the hinge for absentee voting.

Here’s how it works. An Ohio voter requests absentee status via a voter registration form, either a new registration or an update of an existing record. If that request is granted, the voter record’s absentee status is updated. Later on, 50-something days before the election, local election officials use the system to find all the people in their county who will be voting absentee, and send each of them their absentee ballot via U.S. Post. But what if the “find all the absentee voters” part doesn’t work? Then some people don’t get an absentee ballot, and many of them will try to vote in person, and hit a snag, because:

  1. The find-the-absentee-voters part is tricky to do with the voter-records system, and many county officials were not given the correct instructions for the lookup. As result, many absentee voters didn’t get an absentee ballot.
  2. What does seem to work OK is preparing the pollbooks for in-person voting, where the poll books indicate for each voter whether they have absentee status. As a result, you get voters with absentee status — but no absentee ballot — showing up on Election Day, and being told that they already have a ballot.

Then what? Well, if a voter is persistent and/or the poll workers well-trained and not swamped, then a poll worker will help the voter understand how to vote provisionally — mark a ballot that does not go into the ballot box, but rather into an envelope with the voter’s info. After the election, all these provisional ballot envelopes go to county election HQ, where election officials have to process each envelope, to decide whether the ballot inside should be counted.

Now, the 100,000 estimate kicks in. In a small county with thousands of provisional ballots, or a large county with tens of thousands, the provisional ballot processing can easily go all night and into the next day, because it can’t even begin until all absentee ballots have been centrally counted, folded into the results from precincts, and tabulated as preliminary election results. Now suppose that statewide, the margin of victory for the presidential election is only tens of thousands of votes, and statewide there are 100,000+ provisional ballots that are yet to be counted?

In that case, provisional ballot processing is going to receive a lot of scrutiny, and every one of those non-counted ballots is going to be subjected to the type of controversy we saw in Minnesota 4 years ago with the Franken-Coleman senate contest that took weeks to resolve. And this is the situation that has many Ohio election officials (and me) praying that whatever the election result is, the margin is wider than the number of provisional ballots.

This situation is rooted in a voter records system that’s too complicated and clunky for harried, under-funded, under-staffed, hard-working election officials to use reliably. So if you doubted that ordinary information technology could create a possible election meltdown just as easily as flaky proprietary voting systems, well, now you know. And that’s just one reason why we’ve been hard at work on registration-related technology — try to help create the public benefit of an election that is and can be seen to have been administered correctly, before the ballot counting even begins.

Keep those fingers crossed …

— EJS