Brian Newby, Online Voting and the “Speed of Life”

[Image courtesy of wilgonzalez]

My friend Brian Newby is back with a new post at ElectionDiary – and this time it’s about the lack of fit between the public and the election community on online voting:

Aside from the incredible busyness of elections, I’ve been leading a couple of graduate courses at Baker University …

Last night, a student in Topeka asked a very understandable question:

“Why can’t we vote electronically?”

Electronically, in this context, meant from a computer, on the Internet.

I ran by the whole Election Assistance Commission, certification, Help America Vote Act, and all kinds of other data points from the last decade.

And then I said the obvious:

“The election industry doesn’t travel at the speed of life.”

Brian notes that it’s a good thing that elections don’t just swing with the latest fad, but acknowledges that it creates a status quo that is different from what many members of the public experience in their daily lives:

[F]or instance, we have oversized palm pilots for voting machines.

The industry does its part to ensure that the postal service has plenty of mail to deliver 6 days a week.

It’s not that Brian is advocating for online voting; it’s just that his customer service orientation – i.e., that every year should be the “year of voter” – makes it difficult to explain to people why the industry isn’t at least contemplating greater use of the Internet:

[I]n my own business days, I encountered a guy who worked with me on a particular sales account at Sprint. He used a phrase all of the time, “the red-faced test,” which, best I could tell, meant an answer he wasn’t embarrassed to tell.

Pricing or delivery times for new products had to pass the red-faced test, for instance.

In the election world, I think we need to take the same red-faced-test approach with online voting, or at least online ballot marking, where the ballot is prepared and stored to be taken to a polling place.

There are efforts underway to examine (and not merely debate) the security and procedural challenges of online voting – but Brian’s very well-taken point is that the election community needs to be sensitive to the public’s interest in the concept.

I often joke that everyone believes that we will have Internet voting “someday,” but that the disagreement intensifies when you try to define “someday.” There are very real security concerns with online voting, and the field is doing what it can to investigate if and when such a practice might be possible – but for many, online voting’s “someday” is still far away.

What Brian is saying, I think, is that the public thinks “someday” is sooner than the experts do – and we in the election community do voters a disservice if we don’t at least acknowledge that expectation and take steps to address it and not just ignore it, dismiss it or try to explain it away.

As Brian says:

[I]t’s becoming more of an odd question to answer outside of the election industry. Life moves electronically, over the Internet specifically.

Explaining why voting electronically is scary is a bit like denouncing that gravity is real or that puppies are cute.

At the very least, as we look at new voting systems, whether they be part of a device a person owns or use a device at a polling place, there seems to be growing acceptance of ballot-marking systems. In some cases, users can beam their pre-populated ballot to a terminal that calls it up on screen for review before being cast.

This is true innovation in the election world, but a yawner in the real world. Still, it’s movement, maybe not at the speed of life but certainly movement that may give life to voting electronically.

In short (and now I’m translating, so this is me more than Brian) the field shouldn’t blindly embrace online voting just because the public wants it – but it’s just as bad to ignore public expectation simply because “the experts” think they know best. In other words, It’s OK to feel the pressure of public expectation and use it as fuel to take a hard, honest look at if, how – and when – we might see the chance for voters to cast ballots online.

All voters want, I think, is to feel like we’re TRYING to make elections move at the “speed of life.”

Thanks as always to Brian for his thoughts – and the always-reliable food for blog – er, thought!

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