by Andrew McCoy, Special Contributor
On February 21 the William and Mary Election Law Society held its annual Symposium with a focus on election day delays. During the symposium three panel discussions were held, and I had the pleasure of being present in the Voting Technology panel. This discussion was facilitated by Paul Herrnson and included three William and Mary Law students, two Virginia Registrars: Kirk Showalter and Greg R, and a Member of an Electoral Board: Al Ablowich. We were meant to look at voting technology problems, their impact on voting day delays, and potential solutions.
We were unable to note any specific solutions, partially because we could not pinpoint the impact of technological problems. Mr. Riddlemoser stated that there were no technology related delays in his county, and Ms. Showalter noted that, absent voter or poll worker errors, there was only one technology problem in her county and the resulting delay cleared by mid-morning. Mr. Ablowich did note some technology problems on election day, but these were related to the age of the machines and human error. Based on this panel discussion it appears that reports of delays caused by voting machine failures may have mis-identified other issues with technology failures.
Technological problems can most readily be fixed through innovation, though none of the election officials were optimistic about technological innovation because of perceived market failures. The cost for entry is steep because development of new systems is expensive and the customer market is small and inconsistent because of legislative or budgetary constraints on the purchase of new machines. The certification process is an additional cost, Ms. Showalter believed it to be as high as $500,000 to complete EAC certification, and leads to length delays in making systems available. This makes innovation a high risk endeavor. All of the officials agreed that taking some of the risk out of the market may be the best way to fuel innovation and solve problems that do exist, though all expressed reservation about trying newer technology that may be untested in real conditions.
All of the election officials expressed concerns about the recent attempts by both the General Assembly and the US Congress to solve election delays. None believed that either legislative body truly understands the nature, extent, or cause of the delays, so a solution now may make the problem worse by forcing localities to do more with shrinking budgets. The officials also expressed frustration about the way delays are reported in the press. It was noted that reporters frequently reported problems after speaking to voters or election officials not aware of the problems. This led to reports that were not accurate or complete, and often were not verified by officials in charge.
Funding, while not discussed directly, was an important concern for the officials. All have implemented impressive programs to make elections run faster and more smoothly, but each expressed new programs or technologies that they would like to use and cannot afford at the current time. This was most noted when the officials were asked about extra steps they could take in order to inform the voters or expand voting opportunities. All stated that, if they were given the resources, they would be happy to do more for the election.
Based on our panel discussion it is clear that the local officials in Virginia use their autonomy to provide election experiences tailored to the needs of their localities. If seems that standardizing certain practices may be detrimental to election administration in Virginia because it would force every locality to take the same actions, even when a different path may be better for a specific city or county. Noting that, it is also important that legislatures and citizens recognize the constraints that budgets place on each locality’s election officials. Each official I spoke with had excellent ideas for improving the election in their county, as well as some ideas that would improve the election statewide, but resources are needed to implement these programs.
Andrew McCoy was a workshop scribe at the Seventh Annual Election Law Symposium.