Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bring Your Own Voting Machine

It's capital budget time at the county, and that has major implications for the future of voting in Johnson County.

First, the capital budget process has been tamped down in an environment of cuts.  If you can't put "public safety" into the name of your project, there's likely little traction to be seen.

There's been a lot of talk in the elections industry about the sustainability of voting systems.  In this context, many communities purchased new voting systems with money provided by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) and those systems will soon be showing their age, requiring replacement, but there is no available funding and tapping into local government's capital process generally is futile.

In Johnson County's case, the acquisition path of our 2,500 touch-screen voting machines started in 2001 before HAVA.  The majority of our machines were purchased with county funds.

My predecessor wisely pushed the county to create a replacement fund schedule and that went great until the latest recession.  The funds put aside weren't enough to pay for a new system, but would have gone a long way towards the system.  Some years funds were transferred, other years were skipped, and now its use is really just to augment and keep our current fleet breathing.

Best-case, our fleet breathes last in April 2017.  The goal is to replace the system in 2016 or after April 2017.

Either way, we have to build the process into the capital budget now.  Our current fleet of machines, if replaced in today's dollars, is more than $13 million.  For comparison sake, that's more than the cost of a new jail and usually the type of dollars that requires a new tax, such as a quarter-cent sales tax.

I have been very active with the open-source software gang and in considering open architecture where the voting system is not utilizing a proprietary piece of hardware.  The downside to that is that hardware changes frequently, more than annually, and we don't want to have a hodgepodge of technology that makes training difficult.

There have been discussions about moving to iPads or other devices that reduce the warehouse footprint.  (Touch-screen technology has come a long way since our voting machines--that's another post coming).

Then, you have the certification issues by Election Assistance Commission (EAC).  The only thing worth talking about that topic right now is that vendors have invested millions into this process and are going to look at communities like Johnson County to recover that, making future systems more expensive.

So, this is where we're going:  we're not going to buy a new system.

An old book, but my favorite
on high-tech project management:
"Get comfortable with the idea
of building a useful but incomplete
system," is the message.
That's the line I'm drawing and pushing.  Amid many reasons why this is a crazy idea, I'm going to force myself, our staff, our county, and vendors to accept that these are objections to work through in design, not reasons to say this won't work.

The vision I see is one where a voter comes into a polling place with a device--iPad, iPhone, Android, whatever they have--and either through Near-Field communication (ala Google Wallet) or by tapping in a voter number we give the voter, the voter's specific ballot comes up on the device.

The voter makes selections on his/her device, presses "print," and a paper ballot, with scanning marks, is printed for the voter to place in a scanner.  The ballot isn't a label, isn't a barcode, and isn't in a format that only has the selections.  The ballot is the ballot, just like they would get if someone mailed back one we printed and mailed them for advance voting. And it would work with our existing scanner model and software.

I have shared this with vendors who have quickly jumped to, "Yeah, we can do that today."  That's not true.  But they have some years to figure it out.  I've done the heavy lifting.  I'm an idea guy.  Now, it's just a small matter of programming.  :-)

But this is where we're going.  It's Internet voting without the Internet.  It has a paper trail.  It hopefully uses our existing scanners and if designed right will do an end-run around many of the needs of EAC certification.

It's taking a page from the IRS playbook.  Instead of our government sending out tax booklets, the cost of completing a tax return shifts to the end-user.  I'm not cool with that concept, except that tax dollars are saved, but in this plan the end-user already has the device.

We will need to have a device at the polling place for the small number of persons who don't have a device, and by 2017 that will be a small number.

The main point is all about avoiding the $13 million capital outlay.  We'll have to buy scanners and printers, and this will have to coincide with moving to vote centers (like mega advance voting sites) where users can go to any location and vote.  I'm sure it can be done for 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of a straight replacement.

One thing about this is the idea that we have to get comfortable designing a voting system for the near future, not the dream system for the long future.

Voting system design is now a forever thing.  If the cliche "success is a journey, not a destination," is true, the same can be said for voting systems design.  It's a journey.

We also have the benefit of a major county, Los Angeles County, walking down the next-generation path about a year ahead of us.  We'll learn a lot from them (that's a future post, too), particularly in ideation and in involving the user community.

But this is my resolve and the direction we are heading.  We're hoping to collaborate with vendors over the next year to look at defining the requirements, but it means that nothing under development or certified currently by the EAC is something we would use.  That's a harsh starting point.

If you're in the industry, you've probably thought of at least 10 reasons why this is wacky.  The most important commitment to real progress is to treat them all as hurdles in design, not reasons to move on.