Tech Improvements to Good Election Recipes

In a previous post I described the Minnesota election process recipe and later described some room for improvement — well, now you can read it straight from MN Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, what he’d like to do to improve the recipe.

Those improvements are mainly in election process and practice. I’d like to stir the pot a bit more, and add suggestions for some technology-enabled improvements for transparency and accountability measures, which could help a lot in future re-count situations like the one recently experienced in Minnesota. These tech measures focus on automation and tracking of the process of reviewing vote-by-mail (VBM) envelopes, determining whether the form on the envelope has been fill out properly, dated, and signed with a signature that matches a signature on file. Only if all these tests pass is the envelope queued for processing that leads to counting the VBM ballot inside. Otherwise, the VBM envelope and ballot are excluded – situations that were the focus of much of the controversy in the MN recount.

Interestingly, some of these same transparency and accountability measures, useful for VBM, already apply to voter registration systems. This is ironic, because it is lack of confidence in voter registration systems that is driving increased voter usage of vote-by-mail as a form of early voting. The common factor in both cases is a piece of paper that has an pen-and-ink signature. Here’s how the automated process works.

  • The signed piece of paper (VR request or VBM envelope) arrives at a county’s election office, and is scanned, with the digital image stored.
  • A clerk examines the piece of paper to determine all required info is present, including a signature and, if appropriate, a signature match.
  • If not, the clerk can reject it, but they must provide information about the reason for rejection, with this information being stored along with the digital image.
  • Those records can be made available to the public (with suitable redaction for privacy of voters), to create public accountability for those decisions, and visibility into the operations.

You can see this in action in TTV’s fictitious state of Jeffersonia’s VR system (a work in progress of our TTV Registrar), but similar accountability measures, if not so much transparency, are already in existence in real VR systems — but not as far as I know in county VBM processing.

For VBM, even more benefits are possible, because the records also create internal accountability, audit, and review. In some states, this review process could be on-going as the VBM envelopes arrive, even in states where it is not allowed to actually count VBM ballots until election day. And with a rolling review process, each decision could be reviewed by one or more people, without the requirement for reviewers to get physical access to the VBM envelopes. That way, a good portion of erroneous decisions could be caught and corrected routinely, rather than becoming time bombs for a recount. And further, the accept decisions could be reviewed before election day as well. In the case of an incorrect reject decision, there is review and recourse to actually count the ballot. But for an incorrect accept decision, once the envelope has been opened and the ballot removed, the ballot must be counted — there is no way to go back an associate the ballot with the envelope.

With this scheme, not only would there be increased citizen confidence from the transparency of the process, I think that there would also be increased confidence from visibility that the process actually includes checks and balances that are properly executed. Am I dreaming? I hope not. We’re building this type of transparency for VR systems, and there is little technical challenge in extending it to VBM processing. But I can dream that as states and counties improve their recipes, this approach will become a possible ingredient.