Thursday, April 10, 2014

How to encourage innovation with e-voting technology

Source: Google Images
Technology continues to evolve and develop at a breakneck pace, quickly generating new products and services that far surpass the capabilities of previous generations. The smartphone that most people carry around with them today is more powerful than full desktop computers from only a few years ago. As such, it is of paramount importance that all facets of government similarly keep up with this quickened pace of advancement and one area in particular where this need is pressing is with electronic voting technology.

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration (EAC) produced a lengthy report titled The American VotingExperience in January 2014 where it outlined several recommendations that it had for electoral reform in the country moving forward. In its investigation into the voting process in the United States, the Commission was particularly concerned with “the impending crisis in voting technology.” Indeed, many of the voting machines currently deployed across the nation are at least a decade old. Many of these machines on the market fail to “meet the current needs of election administrators.”

A large part of this struggle has to do with the bureaucratic red tape involved with the standard-setting and certification process for voting machines. This process has become far too cumbersome, stagnating any innovation in the space and acting as a significant barrier to entry for new companies who wish to develop newer and better e-voting machines that utilize better technology and can offer many benefits.

The current crop of voting machines in the United States came about from the Help America Vote Act of 2003, transitioning the country away from punch card ballots and mechanical lever machines and toward Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) and optical scan machines. This aided in efficiency and reliability, but even these machines are now outdated.

The current certification process for new electronic voting machines is too costly and too time-consuming. As a result, the different jurisdictions across the United States have neither the time nor the money to invest in new machines. The resources simply are not there and a reformation of this process is absolutely warranted, as recommended by the Commission.

Yes, a certification process is still needed, as the e-voting machines need to adhere to certain standards for the elections that they will manage. They still need to be reliable. They still need to be secure. There needs to be measures in place to make the voting fair and unbiased in its presentation, as well as protecting the machines against hacking or tampering. However, a reformation of the process needs to open up the market for e-voting machines to companies beyond the incumbents. The certification process needs to be faster and less costly.

To this end, the Commission recommended that the setting of such standards and the management of the certification process should not be dependent on the EAC itself. Instead, it says that “either some other body within or apart from the EAC must be in charge... or the states should adapt their regulations such that federal approval is unnecessary.” By streamlining the process, greater competition is encouraged among the e-voting machine vendors and this will help to encourage better and faster innovation in the industry.

One technology that the EAC recognizes could have a significant impact on the voting experience is the ability for voters to “pre-fill” their sample ballots at home. This will speed up the voting process, thus reducing long lines and improving the overall efficiency of the electoral process. Even the use of an adapted off-the-shelf device like a tablet or computer can be worth exploring, as long as proper precautions are taken to ensure its security.

A better, more efficient, and more secure electronic voting experience can be enjoyed by voters, administrations and governments alike. It's time to revamp the certification process for these machines and move forward.