Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

It’s About the Crowd

Last night, when the polls closed for the special election in Delaware’s 19th Senate District, people across the state fired up their browsers and pulled up the web site for the Department of Elections to check the results. And then they waited… And waited… And waited some more.

The waiting is the hardest part

The unofficial results for the election never really made it to the web. There was much grousing on Twitter about the lengthy delay in posting the results, and some reports that Department of Elections officials did not know why they technology they were using wasn’t posting to the web. This morning, a temporary page listing the results (which appears to have been manually thrown together) appears on the Elections web site.

Before I really get into my groove here, let me say this. There are scores of dedicated, hardworking people that volunteer their time on election day in this state. I know some of them – they are good friends. They almost always go unappreciated for the hard work they do to make sure that our elections run smoothly. We owe them our thanks for their service.

Having said that, if there are experienced, hardworking people investing their time into our elections process why are some aspects of it so broken? With all of the expense and effort that goes into our elections process, for something as simple as posting the results online (particularly in an election where only about 6,000 people actually vote) to fail clearly shows that the system is broken.

Tapping into the crowd

There is a different way to do this – one that is cheaper, faster and better in almost every sense. How can the state fix this broken system? Tap into “the crowd.”

Delaware officials should issue an open call to suggest alternatives to the current system of posting election results on the web – one that is cheap, simple and reliable.

Delaware is full of talented, enthusiastic, civic-minded technologists who would be only too happy to help the state devise a solution. I’ll prove it.

Since I know a little bit about the voting machine systems in Delaware, and the process used to tabulate vote totals, I wanted to propose a simple, straightforward way to collect voting totals from polling places around the state (of course there are phones involved).

Here’s an idea…

The State of Delaware makes almost exclusive use of the ELECTronic 1242 voting machine from Guardian Voting Systems. This machine captures voting totals on several memory modules, one of which is removable. The removable module is taken from the machine (after polls have closed) to a centralized tabulation site. I’m not exactly sure how the voting totals make it from the tabulation sites (I believe that there are a number of these across the state, but I’m not sure how many) to the web, but this appears to have been the issue last night.

One of the nice things about the ELECTronic 1242 is that it also provides a paper printout of voting totals – the paper printouts, along with the memory cartridges, become part of the official voting record. This is what got me thinking.

Why not employ a simple, convenient and secure phone application that would let polling place workers call in the voting totals after the polls close? Building such an application would not be hard to do – polling place workers could use a cell phone or a phone provided at the polling location to call their vote totals in. Access to the system could be tied to a workers’ ANI and would require the use of access codes. More robust security (to ensure that only poll workers can submit vote totals) could entail a call back mechanism (if ANI spoofing is a concern) or even voice biometrics – there are a number of options available in this regard.

This would allow the voting totals to be called in immediately after the polls close. These unofficial results could be stored in a web-ready database, and bypass the cumbersome, unreliable process of taking data out of the centralized tabulation centers and moving it out to the web.

The State of Delaware already has lots of experience building telephone applications — some with comparable security requirements (e.g., checking the status of a tax refund). In addition, the Department of Elections itself has fielded a phone application in the past – one built on a mature platform using open standards — to allow people to check the status of a provisional voting ballot.

I’ll even volunteer to bang out a prototype that Elections officials can use to test this approach, if there is any interest expressed by the State. Just give me a call and I’ll get cracking.

A call for more ideas

I know that there are others in our state that have thoughts on how the current system could be improved. In addition, there may be some who know of solutions working in other places across the country. If you have an idea on how Delaware can improve it’s current system of reporting voting totals, leave a comment here or Tweet it with the #Delaware hashtag.

Here’s hoping that Delaware officials start leveraging the crowd to fix this broken system.

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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