The Root Cause — Long Lines, Late Ballot Counts, and Election Dysfunction in General
I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the last few days digesting a broad range of media responses to last week’s election’s operation, much it reaction to President Obama’s “we’ve got to fix that” comment in his acceptance speech. There’s a lot of complaining about the long lines, for example, demands for explanation of them, or ideas for preventing them in te future — and similar for the difficulty that some states and counties face for finishing the process of counting the ballots. It’s a healthy discussion for the most part, but one that makes me sad because it mostly misses the main point: the root cause of most election dysfunction. I can explain that briefly from my viewpoint, and back that up with several recent events.
The plain unvarnished truth is that U.S. local election officials, taken all together as the collective group that operates U.S. federal and state elections, simply do not have the resources and infrastructure to conduct elections that
- have large turnout and close margins, preceded by much voter registration activity;
- are performed with transparency that supports public trust in the integrity of the election being accessible, fair, and accurate.
There are longstanding gaps in the resources needed, ranging from ongoing budget for sufficient staff, to inadequate technology for election administration, voting, counting, and reporting.
Of course in any given election, there are local elections operations that proceed smoothly, with adequate resources and physical and technical infrastructure. But we’ve seen again and again, that in every “big” election, there is a shifting cast of distressed states or localities (and a few regulars), where adminstrative snafus, technology glitches, resource limits, and other factors get magnified as a result of high participation and close margins. Recent remarks by Broward County, FL, election officials — among those with the most experience in these matters — really crystalized it for me. When asked about the cause of the long lines, their response (my paraphrase) is that when the election is important, people are very interested in the election, and show up in large numbers to vote.
That may sound like a trivial or obvious response, but consider it just a moment more. Another way of saying it is that their resources, infrastructure, and practices have been designed to be sufficient only for the majority of elections that have less than 50% turnout and few if any state or federal contests that are close. When those “normal parameters” are exceeded, the whole machinery of elections starts grinding down to a snail’s pace. The result: an election that is, or appears to be, not what we expect in terms of being visibily fair, accessible, accurate, and therefore trustworthy.
In other words, we just haven’t given our thousands of localities of election officials what they really need to collectively conduct a larger-than-usual, hotly contested election, with the excellence that they are required to deliver, but are not able to. Election excellence is, as much as any of several other important factors, a matter of resources and infrastructure. If we could somehow fill this gap in infrastructure, and provide sufficient funding and staff to use it, then there would be enormous public benefits: elections that are high-integrity and demonstrably trustworthy, despite being large-scale and close.
That’s my opinion anyway, but let me try to back it up with some specific and recent observations about specific parts of the infrastructure gap, and then how each might be bridged.
- One type of infrastructure is voter record systems. This year in Ohio, the state voter record system poorly served many LEOs who searched for but didn’t find many many registered absentee voters to whom they should have mailed absentee ballots. The result was a quarter million voters forced into provisional voting — where unlike casting a ballot in a polling place, there is no guarantee that the ballot will be counted — and many long days of effort for LEOs to sort through them all. If the early, absentee, and election night presidential voting in Ohio had been closer, we would still be waiting to hear from Ohio.
- Another type of infrastucture is pollbooks — both paper, and electronic — and the systems that prepare them for an election. As usual in any big election, we have lots of media anecdotes about people who had been on these voter rolls, but weren’t on election day (that includes me by the way). Every one of these instances slows down the line, causes provisional voting (which also takes extra time compared to regular voting), and contributes to long lines.
- Then there are the voting machines. For the set of places where voting depends on electronic voting machines, there are always some places where the machines don’t start, take too long get started, break, or don’t work right. By now you’ve probably seen the viral youtube video of the touch screen that just wouldn’t record the right vote. That’s just emblematic of the larger situation of unreliable, aging voting systems, used by LEOs who are stuck with what they’ve got, and no funding to try to get anything better. The result: late poll opening, insufficient machines, long lines.
- And for some types of voting machines — those that are completely paperless — there is simply no way to do a recount, if one is required.
- In other places, paper ballots and optical scanners are the norm, but they have problems too. This year in Florida, some ballots were huge! six pages in many cases. The older scanning machines physically couldn’t handle the increased volume. That’s bad but not terrible; at least people can vote. However, there are still integrity requirements — for example, the voters needs to put their unscanned ballots in an emergency ballot box, rather than entrust a marked ballot to a poll worker. But those crazy huge ballots, combined with the frequent scanner malfunction, created overstuffed full emergency ballot boxes, and poll workers trying to improvise a way store them. Result: more delays in the time each voter required, and a real threat to the secret ballot and to every ballot being counted.
Really, I could go on for more and more of the infrastructure elements that in this election had many examples of dysfunction. But I expect that you’ve seen plenty already. But why, you ask, why is the infrastructure so inadequate to the task of a big, complicated, close election conducted with accessibility, accuracy, security, transparency, and earning public trust? Isn’t there something better?
The sad answer, for the most part, is not at present. Thought leaders among local election officials — in Los Angeles and Austin just to name a couple — are on record that current voting system offerings just don’t meet their needs. And the vendors of these systems don’t have the ability to innovate and meet those needs. The vendors are struggling to keep up a decent business, and don’t see the type of large market with ample budgets that would be a business justification for new systems and the burdensome regulatory process to get them to market.
In other cases, most notably with voter records systems, there simply aren’t products anymore, and many localities and states are stuck with expensive-to-maintain legacy systems that were built years ago by big system integrators, that have no flexibility to adapt to changes in election administration, law, or regulation, and that are too expensive to replace.
So much complaining! Can’t we do anything about it? Yes. Every one of those and other parts of election infrastructure breakdowns or gaps can be improved, and could, if taken together, provide immense public benefit if state and local election officials could use those improvements. But where can they come from? Especially if the current market hasn’t provided, despite a decade of efforts and much federal funding? Longtime readers know the answer: by election technology development that is outside of the current market, breaks the mold, and leverages recent changes in information technology, and the business of information technology. Our blog in the coming weeks will have several examples of what we’ve done to help, and what we’re planning next.
But for today, let me be brief with one example, and details on it later. We’ve worked with state of Virginia to build one part of new infrastructure for voter registration, and voter record lookup, and reporting, that meets existing needs and offers needed additions that the older systems don’t have. The VA state board of elections (SBE) doesn’t pay any licensing fees to use this technology — that’s part of what open source is about. The don’t have to acquire the software and deploy it in their datacenter, and pay additional (and expensive) fees to their legacy datacenter operator, a government systems integrator. They don’t have to go back to the vendor of the old system to pay for expensive but small and important upgrades in functionality to meet new election laws or regulations.
Instead, the SBE contracts with a cloud services provider, who can — for a fraction of the costs in a legacy in-house government datacenter operated by a GSI — obtain the open-source software, integrate it with the hosting provider’s standard hosting systems, test, deploy, operate, and monitor the system. And the SBE can also contract with anyone they choose, to create new extensions to the system, with competition for who can provide the best service to create them. The public benefits because people anywhere and anytime can check if they are registered to vote, or should get an absentee ballot, and not wait like in Ohio until election day to find out that they are one in a quarter million people with a problem.
And then the finale, of course, is that other states can also adopt this new voter records public portal, by doing a similar engagement with that same cloud hosting provider, or any other provider of their choice that supports similar cloud technology. Virginia’s investment in this new election technology is fine for Virginia, but can also be leveraged by other states and localities.
After many months of work on this and other new election technologies put into practical use, we have many more stories to tell, and more detail to provide. But I think that if you follow along and see the steps so far, you may just see a path towards these election infrastructure gaps getting bridged, and flexibly enough to stay bridged. It’s not a short path, but the benefits could be great: elections where LEOs have the infrastructure to work with excellence in demanding situations, and can tangibly show the public that they can trust the election as having been accessible to all who are eligible to vote, performed with integrity, and yielding an accurate result.