In the 21st Century, virtually every industry is a technology industry. At the very least, they have a significant technology component to them that enables those who operate in that arena to be faster, bigger, better.
From farming to fashion, technology drives business. The elections industry is no different. But technology can’t stand alone. It requires technical support to implement it and keep it operating at peak efficiency.
Effectively supporting technology, however, is both a skill and an art. The best providers have a depth of experience to draw on, to help them see issues before they become problems. In a high-stakes business like elections, jurisdictions that choose an inexperienced provider—or equally bad, choose to take too many technical responsibilities on themselves—are simply asking for trouble.
There have been high-profile cases recently in Australia and several EU countries, including Norway, Switzerland and Sweden, where election systems have either failed or have not been certified for use. In these and many other cases the underlying cause came down to:
- The vendor didn’t have enough experience;
- The jurisdiction took on too much technical responsibility themselves, or;
- Both of the above.
Successful elections rely as much on expertise and experience as they do on technology. Yes, technology matters. Good technology won’t, by itself, guarantee your election performs at optimum efficiency and accuracy, but outdated, unsecure, piecemealed technology will guarantee you’ll never get there. Bad technology typically is more difficult to work with and may breed bad habits among staffers trying to work around its deficiencies.
The challenge for many jurisdictions and election officials is, with limited technical knowledge, knowing which election automation tools are appropriate for their particular problems. The fact of the matter is, every tool will have trade-offs. Customization can help minimize these, but there is no one perfect tool or system.
While many officials do a fine job of assessing technology in the procurement process, they often overlook the human factors. They fail to ask basic questions such as:
- Who is going to install this system?
- Who is going to train my team? What are their credentials?
- How are we going to support this system year in and year out?
- Who is going to be responsible for upgrades?
These questions may seem obvious to some election officials, but they’re often forgotten by others. A good vendor will raise these questions if the buyer doesn’t. A bad vendor will knowingly gloss over these topics in an effort to close a deal or come in with a low-ball price.
Perhaps, though, the real challenge for many officials is in making realistic assessments of their own team. This is especially true when weighing the choice to insource or outsource ongoing support. Many election officials overestimate their resident talent while underestimating the hours necessary to keep a system operating at peak efficiency.
Some will make the mistake of looking to fancy tools to help cover up operational weaknesses. What they miss, however, is that fancy tools are often delicate and require even more support than simpler solutions. This is where a vendor’s experience can really benefit the buyer. A vendor with deep experience in large-scale election processes can help the jurisdiction make an accurate assessment of the time required and the needed skills. Officials need to ask:
- How much experience does this vendor have?
- What is the scope and scale of their experience?
- Does their team bring a wide variety of skills to their support?
- How does their support team complement my team?
The point in all of this is: Tools and technology are important, but they’re only one aspect of what jurisdictions need execute successful elections. Shiny objects can be a trap if there’s no support or experience behind them.
The elections industry in the 21st Century is a technology industry. But smart election officials know that they don’t need to technology experts. They just need a partner who is.