Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Election of Things

As is the case every January, the beginning of the year hits fast.

The Election Center's legislative kick-off in Washington, D.C., pulls in legislative staffers as the session begins so election administrators can focus on bills and other activity impacting elections.  I just came back from that meeting and it was nice, for a change, not to be begging legislators to slow their roll.

The meetings historically have provided economic returns.

In fact, this conference and the related relationships built with other attendees literally saved our county $2 million in 2008.  

Back then, Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs) were all the rage.  Legislation requiring them was a near certainty.

VVPATs are paper printouts of voters' selections.  The printout stays on a roll with the machine but theoretically is available for post-election audits.  That's if the printer doesn't jam or have any other mechanical issues, and the first generation of these VVPAT devices had issues a'plenty.

Our voting machines were built before VVPATs were invented, and legislation requiring VVPATs, introduced by U.S. Representative Rush Holt, had great steam in Congress back then. To retrofit our machines with this technology, our county would have experienced a cost of about $1,000 per machine.

We had no philosophical issue with VVPATs, other than the mechanical bugs, but this was the proverbial unfunded mandate.  We can't even get $100,000 to replace a 20-year-old election management system, so a mandatory $2-million expense would have put our elections office forever in the budget pokey.

A key player then at NACO and now lighting it up as an election administrator in Maryland, Alysoun McLaughlin, was a big ally then.  She bridged discussions, organized meetings, and worked with me to engage our local Kansas congressional representative, Dennis Moore, at the time.

Frankly, I'm not sure he fully saw the economic hurt that was about to be placed upon us, but one of his staffers, Glen Sears, took this on as a mission.  Glen was the real financial (and unsung) hero to our voters.

In fact, in my Sprint days, we used to say that our lobbyists did more for our profitability than anyone in the company.  And, no one knew! (Well, except those of us that used to say that, of course, which was pretty much me and the occasional person who came into my office).

Similarly, this was one of the greatest budget saving-feats of my election commissioner tenure, well known among my peeps in the industry but not so much outside of that circle.

Such victories won't come out of this year's conference, or even be needed, but it was still good to connect with colleagues on potential issues.  

This year was one of only two I can remember since 2005 where there wasn't a legislative fire.  There are some things brewing, particularly around a bill that more formalizes Department of Justice procedures with military voting.  

Further, we're all lining up to get the report prepared by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, expected before the end of the month.  There's some belief that it may trigger legislative activity, federally and in states, that might raise in urgency by this time next year.

With no Washington crisis,  my mind wandered during my plane trips to where it often goes during the same week each year--Las Vegas.

I'm not much of a Vegas guy, but at Sprint, the first week of January marked the Consumer Electronics Show.  That was the thing for us in those days.  Now, my thing in early January is this legislative conference.

I wondered, though, if more things this year were happening at the show in Las Vegas that will impact elections than activity in Washington.  

(That sentence, by the way, felt very odd to type, more so than it may have been to read.  Elections, by its nature, is a legislative arena.)

I'm convinced that smartphones and tablets will have a role in voting, maybe even as conduits to online voting.  Wearable devices--today's version of what Twitter was a few years ago (laughed at then, now vital at times)--might have a place, too.  

And what of 3D printing?  Could some election supplies actually be manufactured by us?

The Internet of Things--smart devices, connected automobiles, remote control of security, and connected televisions--may seem like it has little to do with elections today, but it might very soon.  Heck, people someday may vote through their television, connected in some secure way to a server (I know that's stinkin' thinkin', but possible).

Beyond the cool factor of these and other products announced last week, my interest is in the risk they might provide to election officials.  In order to look out for the voter, we must take a jaundiced eye at new technologies, reversing the conventional saying to, "You see an opportunity, I see a problem."

For instance, I've spent considerable energy socializing the idea of "Bring Your Own Voting Machine," where users could vote on their own smartphones and other devices at the polls.  Going down such a path could be torpedoed by a new technology.

Such a new technology might be iBeacon, which Apple uses in its stores to track where visitors go, sending them an offer, as an example, when they walk up to the display of phone cases.  Creepy and cool, this technology could be malicious, perhaps, in a polling place.

In fact, I started thinking of all the unfounded objections we've addressed over the years with touch-screen voting machines:  that they are controlled by a manufacturer in Ohio, that they can flip votes, or that they can be hacked wirelessly (when there is no wireless connectivity included).

New technology will invite a new series of objections.  I can already expect that there would be concerns that others can identify how someone voted, if they voted with a smart device, because some rogue signal could capture what was on the phone.

Face it, as Americans, we're not exactly in an environment right now where we're certain of our privacy, so any concerns, even if unfounded, are rational.

Beyond the growth in new products and technologies, the number of companies to watch grows.

Google, Microsoft, and Apple don't even present at this show, anymore, and it's still a huge deal.  Yahoo and Samsung benefited by getting more mindshare, as did cellular companies.  

Voters, as consumers, intersect their relationships with these companies and devices with every other aspect of their lives.  As technology is adopted in their car, at home, or at work, their perception of technology when voting has to be impacted as well.  Our voting machines look like the old Fisher Price toy telephones compared to what voters use in other worlds.

Further, it's not like government is a technology laggard.  In Johnson County, residents can queue up their place in line to get new automobile tags online, getting a text message when it's time to bop down to the office.  Parking meters often don't take money anymore and some use Near Field Communications for payment by cellphone.  Police deliver parking tickets with handheld devices that print the ticket, much like Hertz uses when checking in a rental car.

You don't see that same innovation in election offices.  It's not for trying; it's a budget priority thing.  Election modernization is way behind other parts of government.

This isn't news.  The 2000 presidential election was made famous by punch card ballots.  Was there even another industry or part of government that used punch cards for anything then?  The last time I used a punch card was to pick my selections for the 1972 Major League Baseball All-Star game.

And, with all the talk of next generation voting systems, not one community has made a decision on what that next system will be.  Not one.  

Complexity and uncertainty are two big reasons why, but available funding is another.

There are many communities marching down a process (we're one) with a defined philosophical view of what that next system might be, but I'm struggling more and more to fight off the notion to use our Tinker Toy voting machines until the bitter end.  There are many of them still available to purchase, and they work.

One thing we've learned over the years with our current system is that there's no glory in being the first.  Often, as the first to have touch-screen voting machines at polling places and the first to have new software versions, we ran into issues that were unknown, even to the vendor.  

In 2008, for instance, a new version of the tabulation software required that we manually go through and check the uploading of results, machine-by-machine, after tabulation to ensure that some votes weren't retained in a bucket called "challenged" ballots (the machines are capable of processing provisional ballots, something we do on paper instead).  

Every once in a while, when encoding the ballot card, an election worker accidentally grazes a finger by this new "challenged" box, putting the vote in a different place.  That cross-check process adds about 10 minutes now to our election night tabulation, but the first time we encountered that change, the time seemed like 100 minutes.  I received two calls during the cross-checks from our Board of County Commissioner chair at the time asking if it was soup yet.

Point is, my view when considering threats to voting is that I want to know if there is a vulnerability before some smart professor or group of graduate students find one.  This crazy Internet of Things prism, and all the promise and problems that come with it, likely will eventually lead to new first-mover discoveries.  And they won't all be good.

Some day, I expect that we will see a likely-to-pass bill tee'd up while at the Election Center legislative conference that addresses consumer technology, positively or negatively, upon elections.  It's inevitable, really.

Also inevitable, I think, is some sort of election technology meltdown in the 2020 presidential election.  By then, some communities will be using new technology for the first time in a presidential election.

Others will be trying to crank up the old Chevy for one more election.  The potential for unknown and known problems seems high.  

You may not find odds of this occurring at Vegas, but the products unveiled this year may be involved.