Voting Technology and Innovation

Specific Elections: 
Working Paper No.: 
86
Date Published: 
08/01/2009
Author(s): 
Thad E. Hall
University of Utah

The 2008 election was different from the last two presidential elections in that there was a clear winner on Election Day and the winner was a Democrat, Barack Obama. Controversies over voting technology that raged in 2000 and 2004 were relatively dormant. Instead, the election controversies that did come up were mostly discussions of lines to vote. This lack of discussion does not mean that there were not important issues related to voting technology that took place in 2008, just that they were not things deemed important by the media.

In fact, the 2008 election has proven to be a watershed election in voting technology considered more broadly because in this election, more than one-third of voters nationally voted before election day. As the 2008 Survey of the Performance of American Elections (Alvarez, Ansolabehere, Berinsky, Lenz, Stewart III, & Hall, 2009) noted, “37% of voters cast their ballots before Election Day, either in-person at early voting centers (18%) or by mail, mainly via absentee ballots (19%). The elderly, individuals with disabilities, and better-educated voters were more likely to use these “convenience voting” methods.” This slow revolution in voting is requiring election officials, policy makers, and voters alike to rethink what elections mean, how voting technologies function in this new environment, and how laws, processes, and procedures need to be updated to reflect this new reality. The old mindset of election day as a singular event is no longer a reality. In that vein, voting technology is not some “thing” that is used by a voter to vote but rather is part of a larger process that runs from pre-election voting machine testing through post-election audits.

Every election involves an important interaction between technology, people, and processes. The focus on voting technology—especially voting technology in a single election day implementation—to the relative exclusion of people and processes is problematic in several respects. First, it puts undue credit or blame for election problems on the inanimate technology used in the election. If voters or poll workers have problem with a voting technology because of poor voter education or ineffective poll worker training, a technology-centered focus means that the voting technology caused this problem. Second, the lack of focus on people and processes also limits the ability of policy makers to understand how to improve the system in which the election occurred. Finally, there may be severe gaps in people and process issues that may go unexamined unless there is an evaluation of the people and process components as well. The movement to convenience voting is likely to exacerbate these issues.

In this chapter, I review the people, process, and technology aspects of voting. In particular, I consider the evaluations of all three that occurred after the 2008 election. Then we consider where we stand in relations to innovations with voting technology and the path forward for improving this aspect of voting, both in the United States and internationally.

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