The Way America Votes Is Broken. In One Rural County, a Nonprofit Showed a Way Forward.

In Mississippi last week, a seamless performance by a new set of voting machines took place amid widespread anxiety about election integrity.

In Mississippi last week, a seamless performance by a new set of voting machines took place amid widespread anxiety about election integrity. Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

In Mississippi last week, a seamless performance by a new set of voting machines took place amid widespread anxiety about election integrity.

ACKERMAN, Miss. — Choctaw County’s election centers opened at 7 a.m. last Tuesday, and voters were greeted by poll workers who’d just set up brand-new voting machines.

“If you need any help, just holler,” poll worker Albert Friddle told a voter as he walked her through the new system.

She didn’t holler. Using a machine the size of a briefcase, she selected her choices, printed and double-checked her ballot, and dropped it into a secured blue box provided by the county.

Indeed, the day went without anyone hollering.

“Everything went just fine,” said Amy Burdine, Choctaw County circuit clerk. “Just as expected.”

The scene in Mississippi, if modest in its particulars, was seen by some as a telling moment at a time of great anxiety about the accuracy and security of the nation’s voting systems.

Mississippi is one of only a few states in the country to allow the use of voting machines that have not been certified by federal authorities, and the state has no certification process of its own. As a result, the machines at work for the first time in Choctaw County last week were built by VotingWorks — a small nonprofit organization founded by Ben Adida and Matt Pasternack. Adida and Pasternack selected the state both for its regulatory environment and because many counties in the state continue to use paperless voting systems, allowing the company, Adida said, to “very quickly improve the security of voting in Mississippi by reintroducing paper.”

The machines, VotingWorks said, were inexpensive to make, easy to fix and no problem to set up and take down. The hope, the organization said, was to produce shorter lines and more reliable results, a wish that seemed realized on Nov. 5.

“To be on the ground floor of something like this as one of the poorest counties in the state, that’s pretty exciting,” said Wayne McLeod, an election commissioner in Choctaw County.

For VotingWorks and the election officials in Mississippi, the fact that the machines had not been federally certified was a plus, not a risk. Set up nearly two decades ago to try and improve the reliability of voting systems, the federal certification process is today seen by many as an impediment to the kind of technological progress urgently needed in the field.

The process — overseen by the federal Election Assistance Commission — is both lengthy and costly. And the long track record over the years of election scandals and controversies makes clear it hasn’t been all that effective.

“Certification can be a double-edged sword,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “On the one hand, we want and need minimum standards for access and integrity in our voting machines. But on the other hand, certification can be a significant barrier to innovation.”

Experts and election officials across the country have argued that the certification process has helped the small handful of major voting systems companies to dominate without a great incentive to invest in more effective and trustworthy technology.

Last Tuesday, machines made by ES&S, the nation’s largest voting machine company, were at the center of yet another controversy.

In Northampton County, Pennsylvania, voters suffered through long lines only to learn that the voting results were severely inaccurate, forcing a count of paper ballots.

“I’m shaking here. I have no idea if these numbers are right,” Lee Snover, head of the Northampton County Republican Party, told local media last week. The county executive described the situation as a “three-alarm, raging fire.”

The ES&S machines deployed in Northampton County went through more than two years of development and testing before the episode on Election Day. ES&S did not respond to requests for comment or written questions on how it plans to proceed in Northampton.

Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure said that it may be several weeks before the cause of the problem is determined. “It wasn’t great,” he said. “We must fix it.”

In an interview last month, Ben Hovland — vice chairman of the federal voting assistance agency — recognized that the certification process was often too slow to spark innovation. The standards are currently being updated (a process that has dragged on since 2015), which he says is allowing the agency to rethink a variety of issues.

“I think it’s a great time to really step back and look at the process as a whole and see if there are ways that we can make it better make it more efficient,” he said.

Adida and Pasternack, the VotingWorks officials, said its machines were first tested in Mississippi in a single precinct in Choctaw County during the state’s primaries, monitoring for problems and features that confused voters and poll workers. After the initial trial and a second user test at a retirees potluck lunch, the county election commissioners enthusiastically allowed the company to test the machines countywide during the general election on Tuesday.

“When the other commissioners saw these machines, they said, ‘We want these in November,’” said McLeod, the Choctaw County election commissioner.

VotingWorks machines are housed in a black case, light and easily carried by poll workers, many of whom can be older. The case contains a simple touch-screen tablet that can be purchased off the shelf and that has custom software installed on it. Voters are given a card by a poll worker that has a chip in it loaded with the appropriate ballot, and they install it in a card reader so that their ballot pops up on the touch-screen device. When they finish, they take the card to a separate station and print the ballot. The printing station erases the data on the card, and the voter reviews the ballot for accuracy before inserting it into a thick blue cloth ballot box that can be sealed.

Unlike most voting machines, they did not come with a stand and are meant to be propped up on tables. At polling places in Choctaw County — mostly volunteer fire stations — the machines were sitting on top of folding tables. In others, they were on desks. The machines took poll workers less than two minutes to fully construct, shortening lines and keeping voters calm. Poll workers uniformly said they loved this feature, as it made the machines easier to maneuver and take down.

Adida said the company hasn’t ignored existing standards. “We’ve looked at the aspects of certification that we think are meaningful,” he said.

“The certification process would not have helped us with building something that works for poll workers,” said Adida, who said VotingWorks set out to build a product that poll workers with little training could manage securely and set up easily.

Adida and Pasternack recognize that there is justified trepidation around proceeding with machines that haven’t been formally certified, but they said that they are confident that their process will result in a more secure, affordable and user-friendly machine.

“I’ve never seen any technology product built that’s great for users if the users don’t get to touch it for the first two years of development,” Pasternack said.

Jessica Huseman covers voting rights and election administration for ProPublica. 

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
Improved Water Quality and More Field Time Due to a 97% Reduction in Office Admin Work
Marin County, CA, USA
Integrated city systems, unified data, & automation drive 316% increase in field efficiency
Seattle, WA, USA
Orlando Protects Citizens During Heavy Rain Events by Optimizing Water Data Intelligence
Orlando, FL, USA

NEXT STORY: State Attorneys General Take On National Fights

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.