The Backbone Of American Elections: Pen And Paper

Editor’s note: Chris Kelly is a Silicon Valley attorney and served as the first Chief Privacy Officer, General Counsel, and Head of Global Public Policy for Facebook, which he left in 2009 to seek the Democratic nomination for Attorney General of California. Since the June 2010 primary, he has become an active angel investor in technology companies.

Apple will soon put a touchscreen computer on our wrists. High school football is being reshaped for both players and coaches by the latest video technology. And a Silicon Valley pundit is waxing visionary of a future where digital technology enables telepathy between humans. And yet, in this techno-wonderland, in the most powerful and technologically advanced country in the world, today, most of us will head to the polls and use pen and paper to vote. How can this be?

To answer this question, we need to look at the role of technology in government and understand that where government once led, it has fallen behind. This is not to bash our civic institutions, but instead to make clear that technology moves faster than a process and regulation-constrained government organization — or large business for that matter — can match. The reasons for this gap in technological pace are cost and scale.

More specifically, the reason Americans vote with pen, paper and old software is because election officials must rely on a shoestring budget to administer accurate, verifiable and secure elections. Innovation in voting technology is more than just forking over the money for the latest touchscreen tablet. It requires specialized technology that can be audited (hence the need for paper), is as secure as possible and maintains voter anonymity. If election officials had proper budgets we might assume our voting experience would more closely resemble the technology we use every day. However, left with meager funds to conduct elections, our polling places are portals to the past.

Today, election budgets are spent fixing and maintaining current voting machines, which were purchased with money granted to local jurisdictions in the wake of the 2000 Bush-Gore election when Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. That one-time budget surplus has been exhausted and elections officials are once again stuck with aging and increasingly obsolete equipment and no money to acquire new technology.

With no way to acquire updated and more reliable equipment, it’s no wonder we’re so far from the cutting-edge when we cast ballots. What is a wonder is that in 2012 the campaigns for U.S. president raised and spent over $1 billion. These campaigns spent this money to develop and deploy advanced technology with the ultimate goal of getting voters to the polls on Election Day.

The voters they sent to the polls would cast a ballot, using pen, paper and outdated technology, which could easily fail and critically jeopardize results (as we witnessed in 2000 with Bush v. Gore). In short, billions are spent to get people to the polls, only to have them never want to return because the experience is so bad. If that sounds drastic, consider that only 23 percent of millennials — our most technologically savvy generation — are expected to vote today, according to Eva Guidarini of the Harvard Institute of Politics.

This is where the opportunity lies. If only 2.5 percent of the $1 billion spent on getting people to the polls were invested to improve voting technology, we would have a much more modern, easy and convenient voting experience. How do I know this? Because there are organizations, like the Open Source Election Technology Foundation (OSET), working on that right now. OSET (Note: I sit on its board of directors) is a nonprofit started by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who peg the cost of developing a completely new open-source elections administration and voting platform at just over $25 million dollars — a fraction of the money spent during any significant election cycle. Moreover, this amount doesn’t include the tremendous cost savings that would result each election from using a free platform.

If the deployment of taught us one thing, it is that a 21st century voting experience will not come from the government and we shouldn’t expect it to. The solution needs to come from the voters, from the same people that donate to campaigns, and the entrepreneurs who build state-of-the-art technology everyday. While we cannot expect to be voting from our wrists any time soon, we can expect that elections in America use technology that inspires participation and engagement in our democracy.