The 2008 Election in California Could Be Awesome

So the California Secretary of State’s review of voting systems could produce the coolest 2008 election ever. As the release states:

The Secretary of State intends within the next several weeks to begin a top-to-bottom review of voting systems currently certified for use in California elections. The goal of the review is to determine whether currently certified voting systems provide acceptable levels of security, accessibility, ballot secrecy, accuracy and usability under federal and state standards. For those that do not meet acceptable levels, the review will help determine whether certification should be withdrawn unconditionally, or withdrawn subject to re-certification with additional conditions on use for elections in 2007 and 2008.

Now there are several odd things about this release. First, the text is about “voting systems” but the headline is about “electronic voting systems.” Second, the term electronic voting system is redundant in California; all voting systems in California are electronic (How else are optical scan ballots checked for accuracy in the polls or precinct/centrally counted???)

Third, it is quite unclear what is considered a “voting system.” For example, almost half of all ballots in 2008 in California will likely be cast via absentee voting. It will be interesting to see if or how they review paper systems, especially paper systems used in absentee voting for security, accessibility, and usability, ballot secrecy, and accuracy. We know from work Mike and I have done with Betsy Sinclair that the current absentee balloting system in California has issues related to both usability (make an error on your envelope or do not return the ballot on time and your ballot is not counted) and accuracy (absentee voters do not have access to any second chance technology).

Additionally, there are very very obvious concerns one can raise about accessibility (it is completely inaccessible to a person with disabilities) and ballot secrecy (theoretically, spouses throughout the state could be exerting untoward pressure on their partner to vote in one way).

So now the secretary of state has to decide if she will give paper balloting a free pass (and if so, she might ask Al Gore about his views of paper ballots). Given the standard that the Secretary of State is setting, will they be banning absentee balloting next year? One would have to imagine that, if any voting platform gets banned, absentee voting would have to fall first, given that, in theory it scores lowest on an array of these criteria.

It will be interesting to see how they test non-electronic systems. Will they test how “enhancing” affects ballot totals? How will they test vote total tampering on paper systems? How will they test security? Will they test voter-verifiability for paper systems? (It is interesting that precinct optical scanners do not have to provide voter-verification, even though we know that ballot enhancing is a common practice to remedy “problems” on ballots.)

In our upcoming book from Princeton University Press, Mike and I argue that all voting systems should be treated to the same standards. Lets see if California shows the way.