As the 2012 presidential election approaches, states, counties and cities are deploying new technologies to ensure that voter registration and Election Day are handled as efficiently and accurately as possible.
Voting technology makes it faster and more convenient for citizens to register to vote and cast their ballots, which in turn boosts voter turnout. For officials faced with an increased national focus on election fraud prevention, technology streamlines the process and helps ensure integrity.
"The biggest change in the last several election cycles is that the voting technology is less about voting machines in the polling place and more about the different uses of technology that aid voters and improve election administration," says Doug Chapin, an elections expert for the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "With states and localities struggling with funding, they are looking for ways to use technology to do the job more effectively and efficiently."
Maintaining Order at the Polls
In 2009, Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, developed an election management system called Precinct Atlas. The software is now used in 57 of the state's 99 counties; another six are set to come onboard soon.
Precinct Atlas provides precinct workers with simple step-by-step instructions for checking in and validating registered voters and for signing up new voters at the polls who want to cast a ballot. "It speeds up what used to be a time-consuming process and guarantees the accuracy of elections," says Cerro Gordo County MIS Director Scott Tepner.
The county developed the software in response to the state legislature's decision to allow same-day voter registration for the November 2008 presidential election. On Election Day, poll workers processed new voters on paper, but the law was so complex that it resulted in long lines and mistakes, such as using the wrong forms and failing to obtain the required signatures.
"Precinct officials are trained for eight hours prior to an election," Tepner says. "We can't expect them to memorize all the election laws, so we built this program that gives them directions on what to do. It's very intuitive."During an election, each precinct uses two Lenovo notebook computers running the Precinct Atlas software; Dymo label printers for printing voter-specific information, such as name, address and party affiliation, which are pasted on election forms; and Motorola barcode scanners, which read driver's licenses for faster voter check-in.
The software provides checks and balances to curb fraud, Tepner says. During check-in, if the software discovers that voters are in the wrong precinct, the printer prints a label with the correct address. And if the software finds that a voter previously requested an absentee ballot, that voter must surrender the ballot before voting at the precinct.
Each notebook has a built-in database that collects voter information (such as new registrations and names of those who have voted) then updates the central repository in Cerro Gordo's data center every three minutes. In turn, the central database pushes the latest voter information to every precinct to prevent voters from voting in one precinct and then voting again in another, he says.
Overall, Precinct Atlas has made a huge impact in Iowa elections, Tepner says. Lines are shorter on Election Day. Voters are processed correctly and efficiently.
"The thing about elections is that they are visible. If the technology was operated incorrectly, it would be national news that faulty software affected the election process, and that hasn't happened," he says. "Precinct Atlas has been a tremendous success."
Every Vote Counts
Sacramento County, Calif., is also making it easier for military personnel and residents overseas to vote. The county is part of a coalition of 13 California counties that received a $1.8 million federal grant to allow voters abroad to receive, mark and track their absentee ballots online.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program seeks to speed the delivery of absentee ballots to military and overseas voters. In Sacramento County, for example, hundreds of absentee ballots from voters abroad aren't counted because they are received after the deadline, says Alice Jarboe, Sacramento County assistant voter registrar.
Although the law requires that county officials send paper ballots out 45 days before Election Day, some military personnel on the front lines don't receive the ballots soon enough to make the deadline, Jarboe says. Another problem is that some overseas voters wait until a day or two before the election to mail their ballots.
The California counties are working with a company that has a web-based application that will provide military and overseas voters with PDFs of their ballots. Voters can mark their ballots on a computer screen, print the ballot and fax or mail it back.
The counties hope to make the technology available for the November election, but Jarboe says the state legislature needs to first pass a law that allows for online marking of ballots.
Deploying the new voting application will streamline the process for U.S. voters abroad. "It eliminates all the lead time in delivering a paper ballot," Jarboe says. "They can access their ballots much faster."
The city of Long Beach, Calif., last spring deployed radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to track ballots after the polls close to make sure they arrive at City Hall.
Long Beach officials installed RFID tags on each precinct's ballot box and supply box, says Poonam Davis, the city's elections bureau manager. They also placed RFID tags on two envelopes that are housed inside each precinct's supply box — a green-striped envelope that holds the roster that contains the list of registered voters and a security envelope that holds the provisional ballots and absentee ballots that were hand-delivered to the polls, she says.
Unlike barcode technology, which the city previously used, RFID readers can read several tags simultaneously and don't require line-of-site scanning. The technology not only streamlines the ballot collection process, but it saves Long Beach money because the city doesn't need as many workers to track the precinct ballot boxes.
During April's primary election, the RFID technology helped Long Beach's election officials locate two missing envelopes carrying provisional and absentee ballots. Davis knew which precincts the missing envelopes were from, thanks to the RFID tags and software. In the past, those missing ballots could have taken up to a week to find. But with RFID, managers were able to call workers and locate the missing ballots in the supply boxes that evening, she says.
"Instead of going through 350 supply boxes to find the missing envelopes, we knew instantly which ones were missing and found them fairly quickly," Davis says.
Washington has become the first state to allow residents to register to vote on Facebook.
Citizens can go to the state's Election page on Facebook and click on an application to register to vote or update their addresses. While users stay on Facebook, a back-end application connects them to Washington's voter registration website, says Shane Hamlin, the state's co-director of elections.
"We are always looking for ways to increase voter registration, and through Facebook, we have so much potential to get more people registered," Hamlin says. "If people 'like' or recommend the app, it can spread across Facebook."