“Privatized” Elections and Internet Programming

Attending and speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum last week, I came across a good phrase, "privatized elections," used to describe the widening role that private companies play in running U.S. government elections.

Many are aware of the proprietary systems vendors of election systems and voting equipment. Some of these same companies, as well as others, have another role, the out-sourced operation of state digital voter registration systems. (Like electronic election systems, state DVRSs were a result of HAVA mandates.) But the latest twist on out-sourcing comes from a new service that one of the election systems vendors offers to supplement the often low level of technical expertise of some county elections officials.

The innovation: Internet-based outsourcing of perparing the programming for voting devices. What is this about? As I have (and will again I’m sure) complained before, it was a remarkably bad design idea that in each election each voting machine would have to be re-programmed, as opposed to simply supplied with the data definitions of the new election’s ballots. To make it even worse, this programming is delivered via mutliple-write media (sometimes called PEBs) that could be tampered with before an election. 

That’s old news. The new twist is that in many cases, counties don’t have the  expertise to use the electronic election systems to prepare the programming. So now, county officials can access a vendor Web site to use a service where the vendor will prepare the programming for the county. The county employee downloads the programming over the Internt to the PEB, and viola! by inserting the PEB into a voting machine, it is ready for prime time.

There’s enough to be concerned about that I’ll refrain from several rants. But I just had to share this one, because it is an example of "privatization" where our elections’ operation is increasingly the job of for-profit companies using black-box proprietary technology that can’t be examined to tell what it is really doing. Not a great idea, of course, but we’re working on the alternative.

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