How Digital Pollbooks Can Ease the Voter ID Challenge

OSDV_pollbook_100709-1Some of you have heard the rumors and rumblings. Yes, an exciting new project in our open source elections technology framework is in the works.  And yes, it is an important tool for the front lines of democracy: election polling places.

We’ll have a  bunch more to officially say about our digital poll book project shortly.

But first, a thought about how this tool can help the Voter ID challenge.

The Progressive States Network recently posted a call for participation in a teleconference to discuss fighting a rising wave of renewed interest in compulsory photo identification at the Polls.  They note in part:

With a shift of control of state legislatures and governorships across the country taking shape this month, many conservative lawmakers are pushing laws that would require photo identification for all voters at the polls.  While these laws are touted as a catchall way to prevent voter fraud, in reality they only address voter impersonation, an extremely rare form of fraud.  More importantly they will cost states money that could be better spent in these difficult economic times and serve primarily to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.

Maybe so, maybe so.  But we’ll sidestep that argument for a moment to point out that our newest framework project—the Digital Poll Book—can help address this problem, and is but one of several reasons the Digital Poll Book (as envisioned and being designed by the TrustTheVote Project) is a near imperative piece of election technology—open source, of course!

[Ed Note: watch for a post in the near future to provide a more proper overview of this exciting 2011 project—something we think will easily outshine work in 2009 on voter registration systems and work in 2010 on ballot design and generation.]

So, let’s have a look at some concerns people have about Voter ID, and where digital Poll books can help.

Concern #1: It’s a bad idea to have to trust poll workers
It’s a bad idea to trust poll workers to accurately and honestly perform the check for each voter that the ID document they present is valid, and that the document contains ID information that matches voter ID information in the poll book.  Erroneous or mendacious poll workers can incorrectly reject valid ID, or perform a false negative on the match of ID with poll book records, or just take enough extra time during check in to intimidate some people, and force longer lines at polling places.

Our Response:

  • That’s a valid concern—but about the proper performance of ID checks, rather than the ID check itself.
  • Digital poll books can ameliorate these concerns when combined with digital capture of ID.  Here’s how:  Increasingly, States’ driver’s licenses and state ID cards are card-reader ready (i.e., they can be swiped through a device to pick up or “read” the vital data encoded into the card.)  Such a swipe can be the basis for a digital poll book looking up a valid voter matching voter record, without reliance on the poll worker.  In other states an even simpler method of voter ID has the same effect—the Board of Elections issue single-purpose voter-ID cards, including bar code that can be scanned to provide the voter ID information.

Concern #2: A Registered Voter may not have a valid State ID
Not every registered voter has valid state ID, and for some people it is a physical or financial hardship to obtain state-verified identification.

Our Response:

  • That may well be true for a small population of people, but the statement assumes that State ID is the only valid voter ID. BoEs can choose to adopt alternatives, for example  BoE-issued voter-ID cards as used in some states today. Sending these to voters can be as easy as current routine BoE-voter interaction, along with sample ballot mail-outs, with no cost or effort to the voter.

Concern #3: The alternative of provisional voting in absence of valid ID is disenfranchising.
If a voter arrives at the Polling Place without valid ID where such is required, then at best they have to vote provisionally—which is potentially disenfranchising given the inconsistencies of counting provisional ballots.

Our Response:

  • It is true that many provisional voters do not have their ballot counted because of errors on or legibility of the provisional affidavit.  However, digital poll books can help by providing a provisional affidavit form helper that collects all of the required information, and prints a complete, correct, and legible affidavit for the voter.
  • It is also true that some people believe that provisional votes are often not counted. Notwithstanding the accuracy of claims of uncounted provisional ballots, sunshine is the best remedy for these concerns.  Digital poll books can help by capturing—for subsequent aggregation and publication—accurate information about provisional voters and affidavits, for members of the public to verify whether the number of counted provisional ballots matches the number that should have been counted.

Concern #4: Voter ID requirements are inconsistent with vote-by-mail.
Voter ID has little deterrence value for voter impersonation fraud, because of the option of voting by mail without voter ID. For voters that might be intimidated by an ID check at a polling place, voter ID shifts participation to vote-by-mail, where voters have additional risk (compared to in person voting) of not having their vote counted due to errors in preparing vote-by-mail materials.

Our Response:

  • The comparison of voter-ID in person, vs. vote-by-mail without ID, is a valid comparison in general, but varies by State — both in States’ use of vote-by-mail, and in States’ methods of identifying or authenticating absentee voters.  In a state with no-fault absentee, permanent absentee, permanent vote-by-mail, and similar practices, it may well be fruitless to impose voter-ID requirements on the minority of participating voters who vote in person.
  • However, other States have more limited and controlled use of absentee voting, with the large majority of voters voting in person.  In those cases, digital poll books can help ameliorate some of the above concerns and help enable voter ID benefits in States where such benefits are sought.

We think the Voter ID issue is thorny.  We also believe people should get involved with this debate as its likely to have a real impact in how America votes (where the Polling Place remains the epicenter of that civic duty).  We also believe that the elimination of paper-based poll books and reducing if not removing the related issues that can run with their people-based processes is an equally important part of this issue.  Our newest elections technology framework project for 2011 is the open source digital poll book.  Its truly exciting, and we envision it being based on some highly desirable, easy to use and insanely great technology.

Stay tuned for a briefing on the project.


2 responses to “How Digital Pollbooks Can Ease the Voter ID Challenge

  1. With some of your assertions, I differ.

    “It’s a bad idea to trust poll workers to accurately and honestly perform the check…”

    As I have hosted the local polling place for quite a number of years, in my experience poll workers are trying to be both honest and accurate. (Not that they had any choice of anything else in my polling place – but there was never a conflict between my ethics and that manifested by my poll workers.)

    Lets be very clear on the critical part of the problem … poll workers have very limited information and time with which to find a solution … but as a pragmatic matter, I think that particular part of the process works very well. Going into the polling place, looking at folk who may be your neighbors, makes claiming to be someone you are not … is subjectively very risky … unless the polling place serves so many folk that anonymity is expected.

    On a purely analytic basis, the process looks more risky than in practice.

    On the flip side, I view the vote-by-mail process as enormously … nay, VASTLY weaker and easier to subvert. The weak spots in the current vote-by-mail scheme are radically weaker then the old fashioned polling place – when accounting for usual human tendencies.

    With regards to provisional votes … how many regular folk believe their votes are counted, and make a difference? In the current voting process, regular folk have no idea if their vote is counted, and vote more as a matter of principle. No one knows if they made an actual measurable difference.

    The current voting process has near zero confidence on the part of the bulk of voters (yet some folk always vote … in hope of the best outcome). Noting the idealism inherent in regular voters should not be a small thing.

    1. Preston —
      Thanks for giving me the chance to clarify a poorly worded remark “It’s a bad idea to trust poll workers” to do a voter-ID check. A more accurate statement would be this: the more responsibility and authority that your put on volunteer poll workers, then the greater the scope for volunteer errors to dis-enfranchise voters. Like you, my experience is that poll workers are trying to be honest and accurate. However, good faith attempts at accuracy can still fail for any number of reasons – lack of training, a long 18 hour work day … As for the honesty and trust, the issue is not that widespread lack of honesty, but rather the perception that volunteers have power that when used accurately could be perceived as lacking in probity. When there is increased scope for perception of ill intent, then there is increased scope for lack of trust in election integrity. So, when we can reduce the scope of volunteer error, we increase the trustworthiness of process of conducting an election.
      — EJS

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