Elect IT: Technology and the Democratic Process1 | 2 |
“From our perspective, we already had this great thing called the Polling Place Finder that had 90 percent of the machinery that was necessary,” Lautzenheiser said. “By far, the huge value for the Caucus Finder was recognizing that we had the tools, and with just a few simple applications of the tools and some minor process development, we could really have something that would be worthwhile to the public.”
While IT has changed the way information is distributed to Minnesota voters, it has not affected the actual voting process all that much, as direct recording electronics (DREs) are illegal in the state for security reasons. Instead, voters go to the polls, vote on a paper ballot and then insert that ballot into an optical scan machine that then tabulates all the votes at the precinct level.
“It’s a system that Minnesotans trust deeply. One result of that trust is that we have the highest voter turnout in the nation,” said Ritchie. “Most states that are looking to find a more dependable, less expensive system find themselves moving toward our approach.”
With the 2008 presidential election just around the corner, the state’s IT staff has been working at full speed since January, making changes, collecting candidate names, running tests and synchronizing the systems. When the polls close on Election Day, the optical scan machine results are brought to each county seat, and the counties can enter them either manually or electronically into the state’s election reporting system. Then the public can begin viewing the results.
During the course of the night, there’s nothing quite like the climate in the IT department: It’s a mixture of optimism, anxiety, excitement, frustration and, ultimately, exhaustion, Lautzenheiser said.
“As far as the environment, it’s optimistic and quiet around 8 o’clock as we unlock the system,” he said. “Then we’re anxious to see the results [come] in, just so we know all the processes of the system are working. As the first couple counties’ data comes in, we watch carefully to make sure there are no issues with the files being processed and loaded on the system.
“From about 9 o’clock to midnight, there are many counties on the system, and the amount of activity increases rapidly. There are definitely issues that can arise, so we’ve got many monitors set up [and] we’re looking for anomalies.”
Being involved in the development of IT tools that improve the electoral process is an exciting field and it will only become more so in the future, as states and organizations begin experimenting with the prospects and potential of online voting.
“Today, if I go to my Polling Place Finder, I can see my entire ballot. That begs the question, how come I can’t vote online?” Lautzenheiser said. “It’s not a question of if; it’s more a question of when. [But] although [it’s] becoming more and more technically feasible, there are still many social, political, legal, financial and security hurdles to voting online.”
His views, however, are not supported by Minnesota laws or the Office of the Secretary of State.
E-Voting: Secure or Not?
Because of the infamous hanging chads in the 2000 presidential election and the resulting uncertainty of voter intentions, electronic voting (e-voting) entered the scene.
“In 2000, you were dealing with paper ballots,” said David Beirne, executive director of the Election Technology Council, a trade association that represents the voting system platforms for 90 percent of the registered voters in the United States. “Anytime you inject that type of item, it’s not a series of ones and zeroes or binary codes: It’s subject to interpretation. Electronic voting systems were pretty much the natural evolution for eliminating questions about voter intent.”
But with e-voting comes the need for security, and now there’s a robust discussion nationwide on the integrity of DREs and other e-voting platforms.
“A big concern is that these have lacked independently auditable voting records and that the internals are a black box,” said Micah Altman, the associate director of the Harvard-MIT Data Center and senior research scientist for the Institute for Quantitative Social Science in the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard University.
“What happens is that you touch the screen, and it records [the vote] in memory. You can go and examine the tallies, but that’s not really an effective record because there’s no trail of individual votes. Combine that with the fact that these are all fairly complex pieces of software and they are not really open to inspection, [and] it raises the possibility that either intentionally or unintentionally something could go seriously wrong with the voting system.”
But any voting platform has security concerns, Beirne argued — even paper ballots can be tampered with.
“From a computer science standpoint, the machines are not hooked up to external networks, so that eliminates 80 percent of your known threats right there,” he said. “Then it comes down to the procedures you use. Regardless of how good your technology is, you have to have procedures built around it to encapsulate it, and that’s true for paper systems, [too].”
The development of e-voting devices makes one wonder if the Internet will become the next viable platform for voting. It’s never been used in U.S. elections, but there was an attempt by the Department of Defense to set up a system for military personnel to vote over the Internet. It was canceled, though, due to “deep security flaws,” Altman said.
“Technology can make it easier [to vote],” he explained. “But a lot of the newer technology, and certainly the Internet voting technology, is just not ready for prime time. It’s unable to provide the integrity that we should expect in an advanced democracy.”
Beirne himself isn’t sure what the future of voting holds. If people expect DREs to be absolutely secure, there’s no telling how the electoral process will change in the future.
“If the model we’re trying to pursue is an absolute threshold, then it’s going to be very difficult for electronic voting to continue to take hold,” he explained. “It’s difficult to know where the future’s going to take us. We’re going to have to see how it plays out and see how comfortable voters continue to be with electronic voting.”
– Lindsay Edmonds Wickman, email@example.com | 2 |