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Life Arts    H2'ed 10/6/16

Brainstorm: Isn't It Time We Designed an Election for the 21st Century?

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The audience in the nearly full auditorium at Present Tense, a division of the downtown DC think tank New America (not PNAC, don't worry!) didn't have to wait long to receive an answer to the question posed by the title of this event.

No sooner had every attendee "voted" during the brief "happy fifteen minutes" than some antique newsreels entertained us and Andre's Martinez, director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program at the New America Foundation, took the stage to comment on how old our ways of voting are. This is no surprise. An ad hoc commission formed by President Obama warned of the antiquated systems to which we would once again entrust our future this November.

But they were talking about the actual machinery, not the methods. Do we need more sameoldsameolds but in better shape? They have been slightly modernized, but that's progress. Optical scanners have counted votes since the 1960s and touchscreen/push-button DREs since the 1970s. And we're already halfway through the second decade of the 2100s.

The answer was next. Matt Adams of the global design firm IDEO outlined L.A. County's gestating new system, expected to be up and running by 2018. This largest county in the United States, with 5 million registered voters, a number greater than that in 42 other states, of hugely diverse backgrounds, will vote on machinery the public owns and operates. They will also count the votes.

The source code will be open, so that anyone who is computer literate can read it, as opposed to proprietary, meaning the code is accessible only to vendor personnel. That's what we have now. It's undemocratic.

In addition, there will be vote centers rather than assigned precincts, so that anyone can vote at any of them as long as they're registered. AND ballots are mailed to voters, who can fill them in at their leisure, educating themselves about the numerous propositions L.A. is famous for, ahead of time, which really helps address the problem of long lines far better than the 2014 Presidential Commission on Election Administration, despite its foray into queology, the psychology of queuing.

With ballots filled out, voters go to the vote center most convenient to them, near home or otherwise, and can feed the ballot into one machine. It displays the choices to the voter, who then finalizes the decisions or corrects them. Our dear old big two, ES&S and Dominion, are bidding along with others to construct these machines. There will be three voting booths: one will be for the general public, the second one will have audio instructions for voters who are deaf or hard of hearing, and the third will accommodate other categories of voter, including those with mobility or cognitive issues. Anyone can access the same machine, which uses a touchscreen interface. Many voters who stay home rather than receiving "special" treatment and machinery will come out to the polls and vote like everyone else.

To conform to local issues that vary by district, Adams predicted that there would be 300 different ballots available in 10 different languages.

$$$? I asked. He said that amount would become public next year.

And so, instead of suspense, we received a possible solution usable nationwide. The next location to trash its half-generation-old systems will be Houston, Texas, seat of the third-largest county in the country, Harris.

Only then did the copious other problems with our electoral system take over the discussion. The five discussants included moderator Mark Schmitt, director of Studies at New America, along with Jamelle Bouie, Slate Magazine's Chief Political Correspondent, Jeremy Epstein, Senior Computer Scientist at SRI International, and popular journalist Dahlia Lithwick of Slate.

Said Bouie, we should vote from home or school. That option would increase voter turnout.

It's nice to talk aspirationally instead of in despair, said Lithwick. We must convince voters that their vote matters--they've lost confidence in our systems. (In this sense, all our publicity about our infinitely corruptible, in every sense of the word, devices, can certainly scare voters away). She called our system "a patchwork of insanity."

Said Epstein, the long hours required of poll workers must be spent efficiently and productively, no matter how old or young we are. There's no use adding Internet voting, which has proved in the past not to increase voter turnout, a result we might expect.

Schmitt pointed out that open-source systems are also antiquated with many points of vulnerability. Epstein spoke about the breadth of the process as a whole, which varies from county to county, one argument why our system as a whole would be hard to hack into. One magnet wouldn't work, nor one hacking formula. But registration lists in two states, Illinois and Arizona, were hacked into from foreign locations last summer. The suspected culprit is Russia.

For optimal election system performance we must all volunteer to be poll workers, said Epstein. Schmitt added that in Brazil this service is required of all citizens, like jury duty in the United States.

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Marta Steele is an author/editor/blogger who has been writing for since 2006. She is also author of the 2012 book "Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols: The Election Integrity Movement's Nonstop Battle to Win Back the People's Vote, (more...)

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