Fessler’s Latest: Voting Technology Market is “All Over the Place”

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[Image courtesy of syr.edu]

Last week at the winter meetings of the National Association of Secretaries of State and National Association of State Election Directors (separate entities but NASS/NASED for short) I ran into NPR’s Pam Fessler who was armed with a digital recorder and on the hunt for stories. I didn’t inquire what she was reporting – a gentleman electiongeek never does – but I made a mental note to keep an ear out for her stories.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long; this weekend brought an NPR Weekend Edition piece examining the current market for voting technology across the country. You can listen to it here – plus NPR’s blog has the story:

Remember all that new voting equipment purchased after the 2000 presidential election, when those discredited punch card machines were tossed out? Now, the newer machines are starting to wear out.

Election officials are trying to figure out what to do before there’s another big voting disaster and vendors have lined up to help.

During their annual meeting in Washington, D.C., this week, state election officials previewed the latest voting equipment from one of the industry’s big vendors, Election Systems and Software.

ES&S expects a huge surge in buying very soon. It hopes its new ExpressVote machine will appeal to those who want convenient voting as well as the security of a paper ballot that’s counted separately.

“We’re seeing a buying cycle that’s starting now, and will probably go for the next maybe four or five years,” said Kathy Rogers, a senior vice president at ES&S who used to run elections for the state of Georgia.

One challenge facing everyone is the fact that elections have become a bit of a moving target:

Rogers says companies have to be more flexible than they were 10 or so years ago. Both the technology and how people vote is changing rapidly.

“Some are moving to all vote by mail; some are increasingly becoming early vote sites,” she said. “We have some that have moved as far away from [touchscreen DREs] as they possibly can, and then we have others who love that technology.

Even so, election officials are uncomfortably aware that voting equipment purchased just over a decade ago is increasingly outdated already nearing the end of its useful life:

“I don’t have to tell you all, the technology is old and it’s ancient by technology standards,” said Matt Masterson in an address to the election officials. He helped run Ohio’s elections and is a newly appointed commissioner on the federal Election Assistance Commission.

Masterson says most current voting equipment was purchased three years before the iPhone was introduced. Officials now have a lot of catching up to do.

“The public’s out ahead of us on this one,” Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill said. “I mean, they are amazed that we don’t have them being checked in with laptops at the polling places, for example; it’s all still very much manual labor with people crossing off lists with pencils. And so … the public is expecting more.”

Like the convenience they see today when they shop or bank. The big problem is figuring out who’s going to pay for all these new machines. After the 2000 elections, Congress gave states $3 billion, but no one expects that to happen again. Merrill says state and local governments will have to figure out what to do, and soon.

One state, Maryland, is already taking a different approach: “in a sign of the times, Maryland is leasing its new equipment from ES&S, instead of buying — just in case something better comes along in a few years.”

Another vendor is using cost-effectiveness as part of its pitch:

Vendors say they’re well aware that there’s a tough sell ahead — that people are searching for something that’s easy to use and accurate, but also cheap. This is why George Munro of Democracy Live says his company is pushing off-the-shelf technology that can be adapted for voting.

“So a voter can come in, use any Windows 8 tablet, it’s not connected to the Internet or anything, but they can mark their ballot right on the screen and then print their ballot off,” Munro says. He says it costs a lot less than regular voting equipment. And when it no longer serves its purpose, he says the tablets could be donated to schools or other government departments.

Pam’s story confirms what I’ve observed: unlike the post-HAVA years, when states and localities had federal money burning a time-limited hole in their pockets, voting technology is much more of a buyer’s market.

Now, all election offices have to do is decide what to buy (or lease, or build themselves) – and how to pay for it. For that reason, expect this market to be open for a while; as Pam notes, the dominant attitude among potential buyers is “just looking.”

Thanks as always to Pam , NPR’s electiongeek beat reporter [NOTE: not her real title, though it should be] for another fantastic story!

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