In the wake of the disastrous Florida recount in 2000, Congress appropriated billions of dollars for states to upgrade their voting equipment. A lot of states used this bonanza to purchase shiny new electronic voting machines. But those machines haven’t always worked out as well as their backers hoped, and a decade later they’re showing their age. And Congress isn’t expected to provide more billions for states to replace their aging voting systems any time soon. Aneesh Chopra, President Obama’s choice to be the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer from 2009 to 2012, wants to do something about the problem. He is teaming up with a group called the Open Source Elections Technology Foundation to address the problem. Their plan: develop the software necessary to run an election and release it as an open-source project. Chopra and his colleagues believe that could lead to better election systems while simultaneously saving cash-strapped states money. After every national election, you can find media reports of voting machine “glitches.” Common problems include “vote flipping” (where the voter tries to vote for one candidate but the machine registers it as a vote for another), broken machines, and mis-configured ballots. These issues can cause long lines as pollworkers take malfunctioning machines offline or have to spend time trying to fix them rather than checking in voters.
Chopra points to the 2013 attorney general election. “The difference between which candidate won was a single machine that was not counted. It required a manual count of the machine, after a variety of folks on Twitter commented on anomalies” in the results. Election officials finally realized that they had omitted almost two thousand votes from an optical-scan machine in Fairfax county.
Virginia election officials were able to correct the mistake because the votes were recorded on paper, allowing for a meaningful audit. But other states have adopted purely electronic machines known in industry jargon as direct-recording electronic, or DRE, machines. These have a huge disadvantage over older paper-based voting technologies: there’s no way to conduct a manual recount. If voters cast their votes on paper ballots, election officials always have the option to count ballots by hand if vote-counting machines malfunction. But with DRE voting machines, there’s no way to independently verify the results reported by a machine.
Yet electronic voting machines aren’t going away. For one thing, they’re a boon for blind voters, allowing them to vote without assistance for the first time. And the approach many experts prefer, optical-scan paper ballots, still involves using machines to count votes. So many voting experts think the best solution is a hybrid approach: record votes on paper, but use technology to assist blind voters and count votes at the end of the process.
Yet America’s voting technology leaves a lot to be desired. You can’t sell a voting machine until it’s been federally certified, a long and expensive process. Yet the market for voting machines isn’t very big, so few companies are willing to go through the hassle of getting their machines certified. So the market is dominated by a handful of firms with mediocre technology.
Moreover, many parts of the process that could be automated — like registering voters and reporting results — don’t take full advantage of the internet. The problem with the attorney general race in Virginia occurred because results were tallied by hand. Better software could make such mistakes less common.