“Voter Technology: A Reimagined Future”, a presentation at South by Southwest (SXSW), focused on bringing election technology into the 21st Century. SXSW is an annual film, music, and technology festival that takes place every spring in Austin, Texas. This panel was part of the #SATXatSXSW track, which focuses on Austin’s neighbor, San Antonio.
The speakers included Diego Bernal, a social worker and member of the Texas House of Representatives for San Antonio, and Peter Jackson, Public Sector Strategy Lead at IDEO, a design and consulting company based in San Francisco.
Bernal began by stating that the goal of the session was to discuss how to use modern technology to facilitate the registration and voting process. They covered the motivations, possibilities, and issues surrounding technology and voting. Unfortunately, the presentation was something of an “Aren’t we wonderful?” one-sided discussion.
Bernal introduced Jackson, who said that he became involved with the issue, and with his employer IDEO, when he realized “some things only government can do.”
Jackson asked, “Who remembers hanging chads?”, referencing problems with election recounts in Florida during the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential contest. His goal, he said, was to reduce mistakes in vote counts using technologies such as touch screens.
Bernal said he was motivated by his desire to increase voter turnout in his adopted home town of San Antonio. “In San Antonio voter turnout is super low,” he said. “This apathy is generated by lack of responsiveness by elected officials. When I go door-to-door campaigning, people say to me, ‘You guys have been coming to my door for 30 years. That pothole has been there 30 years. My vote doesn’t matter.’” Bernal said he also hoped to use technology so that “People can see what we are doing.” He said, “Now, they have no way to look to see if we are telling the truth.”
Jackson discussed his experiences working with Los Angeles County in California.
“LA County is the world’s largest voting jurisdiction,” Jackson explained. “It is also the most diverse and the existence of a paper ballot is mandated. These things presented huge challenges,” he said.
Jackson said that IDEO developed a prototype voting system that included touch screens, supported ten different languages, included headphones for the hearing impaired, and even supported voting for people whose only way of communicating was sucking and blowing through a tube.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “we could support all of this and still produce the mandated paper ballot for counting and storage, but that also had an electronic audit trail.”
Both Bernal and Jackson advocated electronic voting and registration.
“In San Antonio recently we had an election with two to four hour wait times,” Bernal recalled. “I saw people just get tired of standing in line and walk away.” Bernal also advocated same day registration because people get busy and don’t realize that Election Day is coming.
Bernal also complained that Texas laws were too restrictive. “In Texas you can use a handgun license to vote, but not a student ID from the University of Texas at Austin,” he said.
Voting from home was another possibility offered by technology. Bernal recalled that he introduced a bill which would have allowed that when he saw a woman who needed an oxygen tank with her give up while waiting to vote.
Jackson had an even more advanced idea. “Jurisdictions often provide sample ballots,” he explained. “Sometimes political parties or advocacy groups provide filled in sample ballots. What if you could produce your own sample, with just the issues and candidates you cared about? Then you could use an online system to produce a QR code which you or someone else could take to the voting place and have it scanned. You confirm that it is correct and you’re done.”
When it came to dealing with objections or problems with automated voting systems, the discussion became somewhat one-sided. Although early on in the discussion Bernal said he would avoid finger pointing and wanted to “wash away the politics” surrounding this use of technology, he didn’t really deal with the possibility of electronic systems being hacked to commit voter fraud.
Bernal claimed that voter fraud was nearly non-existent because of the low number of prosecutions. However, if voter fraud is nearly invisible or facilitated by insiders, prosecutions are unlikely. After the last presidential election between Obama and Romney, some precincts in Philadelphia and Cleveland, it has been reported, voted 100 percent for President Obama. Possible, but suspicious.
Both Bernal and Jackson pointed to online banking and electronic filing of tax forms as proof that online registration and voting were safe. They seemed to be unaware of, or unwilling to deal with, issues such as identity theft or hacking of the IRS. The IRS recently admitted that 300,000 taxpayer identities had been stolen by hackers enabling the filing of bogus returns. False tax returns are certainly more complicated than ballots, and three-hundred thousand fake votes here and there could certainly influence the outcome of most elections.
I believe both Bernal and Jackson are sincere in their desire to improve the voting system through the use of technology. Certainly, accommodations for the handicapped should be made and why should we be stuck with the same technology as was used in 1900?
However, the attendees at this session would have been better served if the risks involved with computerized and internet voting technology were dealt with in a more even-handed manner. Change in something as important as voting surely deserves an open discussion.