I have an opinion piece in today’s Salt Lake Tribune about the importance of funding voter education efforts in the state to support the upcoming switch to electronic voting from punch cards. This is a missing link in reform efforts in many places, which is a shame. Small investments can go a long way!
As the 2006 legislative session progresses, there are many proposals to spend the state’s surplus. From education to transportation, interest groups are competing for these resources. Into this mix I would suggest a small but critical expenditure that will benefit all Utahns later this year: providing counties with funds to support the implementation of the state’s new electronic voting system.
This year, voters will cast ballots on new touchscreen machines that produce a contemporaneous paper audit trail. This new voting system will likely improve voting in the state. Electronic voting will also allow those with disabilities to vote unassisted for the first time. However, because most elections over the past 30 years have been conducted using punchcards, additional voter education and poll worker training will be needed to ensure that everyone understands how the new voting system works.
Fortunately, Utah can look to the state of Georgia, which had a successful transition to electronic voting in 2002. In Georgia, the legislature appropriated funds for grants to counties for voter education and election worker training. And the state provided every county with $100 per precinct to compensate poll workers for extra poll worker training associated with the transition. These county-level efforts were supplemented by state voter education and training prior to the 2002 election. All of these efforts supplemented a state website and an automated call center to answer questions about the system.
So how much would it cost to copy this successful model? Relatively little, and the expense would end after the 2006 elections. The cost to provide each county with $100 in funding for extra poll worker training at 1,880 precincts totals $188,000. The cost of providing counties with additional funding to promote voter education within each county — with funding based on county population — is $186,000.
Currently, these expanded costs will be an unfunded mandate on counties, which will do their best with limited resources educate their voters and poll workers. However, the Utah Legislature can provide counties with the relatively small sum of $374,000 and help to ensure that the new voting system works without a hitch. If the state were to spend slightly more, it can produce additional voter education materials and fund additional outreach that will make the elections run more smoothly.
Utah’s election in 2006 is likely to receive substantial media scrutiny. Not only is the state transitioning to a new voting system, but voters will be using electronic voting machines that produce a paper audit tape that the voter needs to review before casting a ballot. This extra step adds a twist to electronic voting that many feel will add a level of accuracy and security to the system. Unfortunately, survey data from Nevada, which used a similar system in 2004, found that 31 percent of voters either did not understand the purpose of the voter-verified paper trail on the voting system, or had not even noticed the paper system at all. Of those who did notice the paper trail, 14 percent did not use the paper trail to verify their ballot.
For this reform to work in Utah, voters and poll workers alike need to be educated on how the system works. The Legislature would be well advised to consider spending this small sum to ensure the success of the system deployment. After all, these same machines will be the ones used in legislators’ own elections.