Election odyssey: fourth lesson, innovations and good ideas!

Another important lesson that I learned during election-day precinct monitoring over the past few years is that there are many good things that occur during any particular election, the result of people thinking through past problems and issues and trying to devise innovative solutions to those problems.

I saw a number of examples of innovations and good thinking during California’s special election, the highlights of which I thought I would present here.

  1. Improving polling place access. I’ve already discussed the problems of parking and accessibility, especially at schools that were in session on election day. But there were also people actively trying to alleviate or solve those problems, for example at the Corona Fundamental Intermediate School (Corona, Riverside County, CA). The head precinct judge in this location had brought along his own traffic cones to mark off handicap parking as close as he could to the entrance of his polling location, and had worked with students in the school to develop directional signs to help voters figure out which school entrance to use to get to the precinct. Here was a person who recognized a problem with a polling place, and who worked to mitigate it (he is the guy in the cap in this picture).
  2. Improving the use of voting technology. In Riverside County, a jurisdiction employing the Sequoia AVC Edge touchscreen voting device, the local county officials provided to each precinct a handful of “stylus” instruments for voters to use. The “stylus” was just a standard looking No. 2 pencil, but with an eraser at each end. Unfortunately, I was unable to get a photograph of this “stylus” on election day, nor have I been able to locate much information yet about where Riverside County got this idea from or where they procured the “stylus” from. But as a tool to help mitigate calibration issues with their touchscreen voting devices, and to help mitigate the build-up of residue on the touchscreens, this is a good idea. The “stylus” also can help improve voting system accessibility for certain voters who might have trouble touching the screen.

    But there was an interesting twist in the use of the “stylus” in Riverside County. I had never seen this employed before there, and it was clear that the precinct workers were not certain about how they were to deploy this voter aid. In some voting locations in Corona, precinct workers provided the “stylus” to every single voter who used a touchscreen voting device. In other locations in Corona, they provided the “stylus” to voters who the polling place workers thought might need the instrument (typically elderly voters).

    And there was at least one location in Corona where I noticed the polling place workers never gave out the “stylus”, even though there was at least one elderly voter who I observed having great trouble with the touchscreen voting system; after observing the voter in distress, the polling place workers did say verbally to the voter that they could use a “stylus”, but the workers made no effort to physically provide the “stylus” to the voter having difficulty with the touchscreen voting device and did not even get up from their chairs to help this particular voter.

    While an interesting innovation, clearly they need to figure out how to make sure precinct workers deploy it effectively in the future.

  3. Improving the voter registration process. In all of my polling place observations over the years, I’ve never had the opportunity to witness the use of a voter registration database, on election day, in precinct voting. I did see, in Los Angeles County, the use of a laptop computer to access the voter registration database in one consolidated voting precinct in Pasadena. According to the precinct workers, it had been very helpful throughout the day, whenever there was a question about a voter’s registration status. This of course is a reform that the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project called for in 2001, and is something that I suspect we will see more adoption of as statewide voter registration files become prevalent after January 1, 2006.
  4. Improving openness and transparency. As I wrote about just before the special election, Orange County (CA) embarked upon a series of novel uses of new technology to improve openness and transparency of their election process. They used novel webcams, and allowed anyone to use their website to track ballot boxes. An interested individual could use those innovative webpages to see ballot boxes as they arrived in the election headquarters on election night.

    This is a great use of new technology to increase the openness and transparency of the election process. I’d advocate that election officials think seriously about using similar technologies in coming elections, including live coverage (through a webpage) of all stages of the pre- and post-election process. Why not webcast the pre-election logic and accuracy testing of voting devices? Webcast all election-night activities, including ballot box arrival, unsealing, sorting and examination of all material from voting locations, and tabulation? Use a webcam to cover any post-election activities, including examination and tabulation of provisional and absentee ballots, any recount activities (mandatory or not),and the final canvass. And post all of the videoclips of these activities on a website somewhere, so they can be downloaded by anyone in the future for any reasons. This is not a perfect substitute for allowing direct election observation by interested individuals, but it can allow those who for whatever reason could not make it to election headquarters to observe these activities in person.

The bottom line is that while we continue to find things happening on election day that are problematic, we also continue to see many innovations and examples of people working to solve problems. We all need to work to identify these innovations and solutions, and to get the word out when we see new ideas being implemented to solve old problems.