Civic Design

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Trends in design issues in voting and elections

The elections track at IACREOT was geek heaven. I don’t mean just for election wonks like me, but also for anyone who cares about technology at all. The International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Elections Officials, and Treasurers (IACREOT) was in Spokane, Washington July 7-11.

A few themes ran through the panel discussions. I would argue that they all have design and usability components that need attention:
  • Voter registration (databases)
  • Military and overseas voting (email, Internet, encryption, troop security)
  • The current Holt bill in Congress (proposes replacing all direct record electronic (DRE) voting machines with paper or optical scan voting systems)

Trend 1: Voter registration forms and databases

As the elections world chips away at solving problems in local jurisdictions such as security and managing recounts, more difficult problems arise to be solved. There was much discussion about creating a national voter registration database. Creating and maintaining such a database would solve problems with people being registered in multiple states and voting more than once in federal elections. This doesn’t happen a lot, but it would smooth operations in every single state in managing voter registration. In one session, a panel of elections officials from countries outside the US talked about (among other things) how they register voters and where the data comes from to maintain the voter registration databases. For example, in Canada, the Quebec provincial elections authority that is charged with overseeing elections to parliament maintains address and other personal information for voters (in Canada, they’re called electors), by getting feeds from the provincial socialized healthcare databases, which are constantly being updated by citizens themselves.

Trend 2: Military and overseas voting

With hundreds of thousands of troops actively engaged in conflicts, getting ballots to voters in the military and getting those ballots counted is an extremely difficult problem. For military personnel on bases that are not in war zones, it is somewhat easier; electronic means are available, such as faxes, to send ballots back to local jurisdictions, which can then be duplicated and scanned to be counted. But in war zones, some troops are in such sensitive situations, they only know each other’s first or last names. Finding these troops, getting them their ballots, and then finding ways for them to return their voted ballots that is timely, secure, and secret is a huge problem.

Trend 3: Holt bill on replacing voting systems (again)

It was the consensus of consultants and think-tank types that the bill that Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) has proposed will not only not be passed, but will probably never reach the floor for a vote, mainly because there are so many other, very important problems with Congress to deal with, and frankly, because the other Democrats who would back it have got what they wanted: a Democratic president and legislature.

Creativity and innovation abound in the elections world
Though attendance was lower this year than last year at IACREOT, there were plenty of stories of creative approaches to dealing with the complexities of voter registration and military and overseas voting. Many counties are trying combinations of new technologies in small experiments to make administration easier, but also to make it easier for voters to vote, no matter where they are in the world. In the meantime, they're looking for design guidance. What's the best voter registration form? How does that transfer to an online form? Many interesting design problems to be worked on.

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