Voting, and more broadly elections, are not unlike the weather in that everybody talks about it but not much is actually done about it.
What has been done are generally technological “fixes,” which while addressing the symptoms of underlying systemic problems, do not actually deal with the vulnerabilities in the electoral process as a whole.
Vulnerabilities emerge, in part, as different parts of the voting experience are scrutinized. Unfortunately, there is a good deal of misinformation and misconceptions in the public space about the reliability of the U.S. electoral process. Voter fraud, voting technology, voting registries, proprietary software, and insecure systems, to name a few, have been identified as critical problems. These are, indeed, failure points. But when addressed individually we are putting out individual fires rather than assessing the interconnected characteristics of these parts and working toward creating an ideal system. It’s taking a tactical approach rather than a strategic, holistic one.
Efforts to address one critical variable, security, are often derailed by FUD. In marketing parlance FUD stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. FUD often hampers the rational, objective analysis of problem. Any consideration of voting security and the over-arching objective of electoral integrity needs to take into account that the perceived security of a voting process may be more of a problem for officials than the actual risks at hand. Addressing public perceptions, which are often stoked by incomplete or inaccurate stories in the media, can help officials remove FUD.
We tend to forget that the U.S. electoral system is structurally complicated, with political and technological considerations at local, state and national levels. Take recent local and global events, coupled with an aging (and underfunded) national electoral infrastructure, challenges to voter accessibility, the desire to address voter security concerns, and the burden is multiplied for planning and management in local electoral jurisdictions. In response to these factors, election officials have taken to designing and implementing their own systems, often because they do not view the current market offerings as tailored to their needs.
For instance, usability (ease of use of the system) and accessibility (the actual characteristics of the system which can be used by people with different needs) are both immediate as well as big picture factors. Electronic voting opened much needed avenues to improve usability and accessibility, through input modalities such as push-button and visual and audio inputs, qualities which are absent in certain paper based voting approaches. Security is critical to confidence in voting, but not at the cost of essential disenfranchisement of part of the electorate.
A sole focus on security, then, neglects these other key goals that are essential to confidence in, and hence, integrity of the electoral process. At the street level, voting officials try to balance competing demands on their attention. They are deluged with public expressions of concern on the one side, about poorly understood notions of voting security failure, and on the other side, a flood of often conflicting information on the many aspects of the electoral process – voting security, accessibility, and reliability, and, to be honest, cost. This has the very real effect of impeding robust objective discussion and decision-making on election/voting systems acquisition. This is also damaging the credibility of election technology and voting processes.
What can we do to make real progress revisioning the many dimensions of election integrity? While there are many sources of information and toolkits that can help inform election officials, what we truly need is a new way to look at the entire elections process as a whole. Understanding that elections come under the purview of state and local jurisdictions, there is still a need for innovative thinking on the national level that addresses these underlying systemic issues. These include new ways of assessing the security of the voting process, such as independent standards and collaborations between social scientists and security experts, so that we can understand how to ensure election integrity. We need to change conversations on social media and the overall public perception to comprehend that new technological approaches are necessary to reduce barriers to accessibility of voting for all citizens.
About the Guest Author
Paul M.A. Baker, Ph.D., is the Senior Director of Research and Strategic Innovation at the Center for Advanced Communications Policy (CACP), and holds the rank of Principal Research Scientist with the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the lead author of the recent white paper, Revisioning the U.S. Elections Process: Voting Security and Election Integrity.